From Hollywood To Homeless: The Writer Of JASON X And DRIVE ANGRY On Screenwriting On The Edge
Sometimes it's the little things. I have a beautiful daughter. And I love writing. I've been truly blessed. I'm a writer. That's a stunning thing considering I'm a dork from Kentucky. Does not compute! Still to this day, writing this... I have goosebumps. I'm a writer. And have been since 1996. All my life, though, really. My first three years I wrote under contract but have been lucky enough to get one job a year since, give or take a few rough years. That one job would pay off the credit cards and refill the coffers, which would buy time to sell or get the next job. A necessary cycle in the roller coaster of the working screenwriter. High highs and low lows but what a beautiful adventure!
However, despite the peaks and valleys of that reality, there has always been this strange bit of mathematics associated with Hollywood. Writing a screenplay = Rich screenwriter.
Sure it happens. But it's by no means the norm. I never sold that million dollar spec. My years have always been feast or famine. I've been paid more than fair. And I've been paid less than fair. As I suspect is the case with most working screenwriters. We just don't talk about it. We can't. One, to speak out runs the risk of being branded difficult. We don't want that. And two, Hollywood likes to hire success. Therefore it's important we appear more successful than we are. You may not be aware of this but Hollywood promotes lying. Pretending we are more successful than we are. Younger than we are. Smarter than we are. In this department, actors really have it bad but it's an industry wide challenge.
This is a Hollywood story. It's not glamorous as Hollywood stories often are. Many won't like it. Many won't like that it can even happen in today's Hollywood. Some people prefer their Hollywood rolled up in a big giant flaming Oz head. But this story is a reality and my guess is, it's likely more common than any of us might want to admit.
My last studio film came out in 2011. It made 5.1 million dollars its opening weekend. That old saying, "You're only as good as your last movie" really means you're only as good as your last box office. 5.1 is pretty dismal. To put it into perspective, my first film, Jason X, came out in 2002 and made 6.6 million and was considered a bomb. That doesn't included inflation or higher 3D ticket prices. Needless to say, after that 2011 bomb a few meetings that had previously been scheduled were apologetically postponed and never reset. It happens. Cast and crew and studios move on, writer and director take the hit.
But not everyone abandoned us - me and my partner Patrick Lussier. The Weinsteins stuck with us. Hired us to develop a take on Hellraiser. Mike De Luca stuck with us. We joined forces and pitched a TV show based on a Stephen King property we'd optioned. But as is often the way, neither the movie nor the TV show happened. So we wrote. And we pitched. And slowly the feast turned to famine. Lussier had the opportunity to partner with Laeta Kalogridis and did so with my blessings. I was there for the early stages, even making a friend pass through one of their pilots as a fresh set of eyes. Had the show happened there was talk of my playing a role. But as is often the way, the show didn't happen. They moved on to the Rifleman and, eventually, Terminator. I have always and still, to this day, wish them both the very best.
At this point, my wife Mel and I had been separated for several years and she wanted to move to Tennessee with our daughter Izzie to be closer to family. The plan was for me to fly back and forth twice a month. And when I had a job, just write from Tennessee. So they moved. And that was tough. Real tough. I'd gone from spending every day with Izzie to twice a month. But when life gives you lemons, you write. And that's what I did. Tons of free writing in hopes something would spark. But nothing did. The coffers emptied and the credit cards filled up. My twice a month trips to see Izzie became once a month. Then every six weeks. My agents lost my number. So for the first time since 1995 I took an hourly job. I worked for UPS during the Christmas rush. 8.50 an hour. When that ended I took a 7 to 4 job in Toyota customer service. And felt blessed to have it. I never broadcast it. Only close friends knew because we have to pretend to be more successful than we are. I had bills and a six year old and although I was doing what I had to do, in terms of Hollywood, it would have most likely been perceived as failure. Hollywood likes to hire success.
So I quietly worked my job, wrote when I could and slowly paid down my credit cards. I got a ghostwriting gig which eased some debt burden but nothing that would allow me the freedom to write full time. At the beginning of 2014 a complicated situation got more complicated and I ended up having to move out of the place I was staying. That’s when things got tricky.
At first I stayed with friends North of LA but I quickly realized, that while I could pay "some" rent, I couldn't afford a place of my own. Not with LA prices. I had bills. I was sending money to TN. I was flying to TN every four to six weeks. My friends said I was welcome to stay with them rent free, for as long as I liked. And I love them for that. But there was another catch. I leased a car with a limit of 12k miles a year. They lived 50 miles from work. That was a 100 miles a day. Do the math and welcome to a lease contract. I thanked my friends and explained I would have to find a place closer to work.
That place turned out to be my car.
But that was okay. I'm glass half full. It was temporary. Just until I found shared accommodations, close to work, that I could afford. What I didn't want to think about was that I had been a relatively successful screenwriter since 1996 and... I was homeless.
For the longest time I didn't tell a soul. Not only was I embarrassed but Hollywood likes to hire success. But it wasn't so bad. I had a car. And a Prius is remarkably more roomy than you might expect. But I'm 6'2". Sleeping in one is a challenge. There were other challenges too. A big one is pooping. Peeing is workable. We boys just need a tree. Or a bush. Or a Mountain Dew bottle. But pooping? Well, I'm a bit of a princess when it comes to pooping. Men's public bathrooms are notoriously horrific. I learned where all the best poopers were located. Malls are great. Specifically, Macy's. Furniture section. For whatever mystery of life reason, nobody poops or pees near the furniture section so privacy goes to 11. Targets are clean but there's a lot of traffic if you like your privacy as I do. Then there's the little challenge of being noticed. When you visit your local Target every evening to make a pottie, employees will eventually take notice.
I had a 10 dollar a month gym membership which turned out to be a life saver. My routine became, work, gym and shower then find a place to park. It's the little things. A shower. We all so take for granted the wonders of a simple shower.
Did you know it's illegal to sleep in your car in Ventura and LA counties? It is. At first I would find dark neighborhoods. But that's tricky because homeowners tend to notice strange cars. I learned to park on the property lines. That way Owner A could assume I was visiting Owner B. And vice versa. But even when you find a good spot there are obstacles. Especially when it's cold. For starters, IT'S COLD! And cranking the engine will draw attention to your illegal sleeping activity. So you wrap yourself in blankets and shiver. But then your windows fog up. Police officers actually look for that. And when they see a car with windows fogged at 2am they know someone's in it. There's a tap and a bright flashlight and your heart pounds. Both times I was told I couldn't sleep in my car and to move along.
I learned to keep the windows cracked which cut down on the fogging but froze me half to death. My back was a mess. My nightly trips to the gym became a necessity just to straighten out my back. Work, gym, shower, car and write until my laptop went dead. For a time, only my therapist knew where I was sleeping and the challenges associated with it. She worried. She gave me her address and said I could sleep in front of their house. Kind of her but I never did that. I moved around a lot. Sometimes I'd have too. Couldn't feel my fingers or toes so I'd drive until I warmed up then park and sleep again. I don't remember how long I kept it a secret but it's not the sort of thing you can keep secret from close friends because eventually they ask the question that forces you to boldface lie or tell the truth. So eventually only my closest friends knew the truth and none of them liked it. Most weekends I would couch surf. My close friends gave me open invites and were constantly trying to come up with solutions. But I think I had perhaps started to embrace the misery. Plus I felt bad enough, I didn't want to burden anyone.
Still, I kept thinking it was just temporary. Things would turn around. They always did. Since '96 I had always been blessed with work. Every time the coffers emptied a job would often miraculously appear. Granted that had not happened. But it would. Things would turn around. So I worked, gym, shower, park and write.
I had not seen Patrick and Laeta in a while as they were knee deep in Terminator and I didn't want to bother them. So when I got an invite to Patrick's birthday party I was thrilled to see them. The place was packed and it was great. The food was remarkable and the giant Dr. Who cake was a GIANT DR. WHO CAKE! Later a small group of us moved back to Laeta's house and it was a lovely evening. Everyone was telling stories. What they were doing. What they were about to do. Actors and casting and rewrites and composing and editing. I've never felt out of place in the world of Hollywood. But there's this little Hollywood insecurity that over the years I've heard many mention. It's that feeling that they go through the motions hoping no one realizes they're faking it, or that they don't belong or that they don't fit in. I'm not saying anyone at this gathering was feeling said insecurity. But it is a Hollywood thing. My point is, I've never felt it. Never thought it. If someone didn't like my script, I'd feel bad for them for not getting it. I didn't just feel I belonged. I knew I belonged.
But not that night. That night was different. I suddenly felt so very... small. Very out of place. Suddenly the weight and burden of my situation came crashing down. My glass half full, shattered. My face turned red and I could feel the tears building. I thanked everyone and departed probably quicker than I should have but I was terrified these people I loved and respected would see me break down. The moment I got outside... well, there's just no romantic way to put it. I sobbed. One of those deep gasping-breath sobs. I found a quiet neighborhood in Encino, reclined my seat and slid under my blanket. That was a rough night. I'd had previous bad nights. And there were others to come. But that one... that one was rough.
But it was also a turning point. Something changed that night. Can't put my finger on what it was exactly. It wasn't that I started writing more.I still wrote as much as my situation allowed. I think it was attitude. I was no longer content to just write and HOPE the Universe would do the right thing. Hope? When had I started using hope? I never used to hope. I had always EXPECTED. I expected Riddle Me This to sell. I expected we'd make My Bloody Valentine 2. I expected Halloween 3D would get made. I expected Drive Angry would be a success. And when those things didn't happen, no worries, on to the next. But something had broken.I'd lost the faith of expecting. I'd lost faith. I had become dependent on the security blanket that was a biweekly paying job. I had to rediscover my faith.I had to find my way back.
And slowly a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Oh, I still slept in the car. I faced the battles of being homeless during the LA summer. The challenge of my car smelling like dirty socks. The debate between cracking the windows so that I could breathe and sweltering with them closed to keep the mosquitoes out. I still had bad nights. But at least I had a car. In the world of the homeless I was a king. I also had good friends. With couches. And showers. I never missed a payment. And I slowly got myself out of debt. I learned you could sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot without being accosted by the Law. I learned the beauty of hanging a couple of shirts on the backseat hooks and using a windshield screen for night time privacy. I turned my trunk into an immaculate chest of drawers. I hit the laundromat every two days and invested in Arm & Hammer baking soda as air freshener. And sometimes I would sleep on a blanket in the park under the stars.
I once heard a writer say that he couldn't write because of all the drama in his life. But drama is what makes us great. College doesn't make writers. Life experience does. It's a writer's job to create real characters that the audience can relate with. Only through struggle do we truly learn empathy. I knew I wasn't alone. I had credits. I'd made movies. But what about those writers out there who had not, who were struggling every day with jobs and bills and finding time to write simply for the love of movies? It's impossible not to respect them. I drew strength knowing they were there.
And so the world moved on. Toward the end of the year I had enough writing jobs to replace my 7 to 4 income. I am amazingly grateful for that job at Toyota as well as those I worked with and for. But in keeping with the plan from years earlier, before Christmas I returned to TN to write near Izzie. I thought you had to be in LA every day to do what I do. I was wrong. I needed to be near Izzie to do what I do. And being near her, my writing output exploded.I'm busier now than I have ever been. I'm writing features, TV and books and I'm being paid to write. No, I haven't sold the million dollar spec. But I never gave up. I never surrendered. I never stopped writing. Writers write. I am a writer.
I also sleep in a bed now. And I wake up to hugs. Sometimes it's the little things.