When I was in grade school, my idea of film making manifest itself in strange ways. I loved taking my parents’ VHS-C camcorder and running around my neighborhood, wearing a female trench coat and dragging along my school chum Richard, filming fan-fiction episodes of Columbo. My favorite episode involved me decoding a secret message, typed in WingDings, by feeding a piece of paper through a printer and “changing the font.” I worked quickly, filming cinema verite style with single takes. All handheld. Never editing. I had to get done before dinner time. I’m pretty sure I was St. John the Baptist School’s answer to the auteur theory.
I’m not a filmmaker. Or a film student, for that matter. But I love movies, and photography, and writing; I’d love to make a movie some day. Now, after months of planning, re-writing, and pitching, I’m simultaneously on my way and right back where I started. I was a semi-finalist in this year’s Steeltown Film Factory, a Project Greenlight-esque competition that gives one screenwriter $30,000 to make a movie. I was one of six screenwriters, selected from 180 submissions, to get to the next-to-last round. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the cut to the finals, leaving me with just about everything I need to make my movie… except for money.
That’s a good place to be. It’s a lucky place to be, and one I’m very grateful for. My experience with Steeltown may have been cut short for now, but it’s been both rewarding and unforgettable.
I first heard about this contest through my sketch comedy friends in Hustlebot, a comedy troupe consisting of at least two members of the Dwellers. These guys fought their way through the untested waters of Steeltown’s debut competition, and they recruited me to help them with storyboards and pre-production design. They won (not really because of my boards, but I’d like to think it helped), and they made their movie. It was a cool experience–one I wanted to try on my own.
The next year I submitted a script and nothing happened. This year, I submitted two (one a Dodge Intrepid adaptation, co-written with James and Mike), and I made it: my short film “Last Will and Laundromat” was accepted as one of 12 quarter-finalists.
In what had to be the most heart-breaking timing imaginable, I got the news of the competition about ten hours before I found out that my Aunt Marian had passed away. It was a Thursday. I spent the day, at work, getting messages of congratulation and condolence; sending out e-mails informing my friends of funeral information, choosing to hold off on any good, less important, news; that evening, Abby organized a beautiful Irish toast for Marian—meanwhile, my screenplay (weirdly enough, about the death of a girl’s grandfather who subsequently comes back as a ghost) was the furthest thing from my mind.
After the funeral had passed, I turned my sights to the first round of the competition—the Writer’s Pitch.
I had stupidly assumed that I’d be able to go on stage, in front of 200 audience members and a panel of Hollywood veterans, and deliver a funny and touching summary of my movie in under a minute. That morning, I put on my brown blazer and tucked in the pocket the prayer card from my Aunt Marian’s funeral and an antique pen from Abby. I practiced my minute-long pitch on the drive over to the Frick Fine Arts building on Pitt’s campus. I leafed through the notes in my Moleskin notebook outside by the fountain. I thought I was ready. Then, as the event wore on and my turn on the stage approached, my nerves became as fragile as a late-19th Century light bulb. My quick, bland pitch fell out of my mouth. I was so nervous I forgot to be myself. I forgot to be likable or humorous. Instead, I was just a cold, quiet guy who wrote a short film.
A short film, mind you, that was subsequently torn to shreds. Now, witnesses disagree on whether or not my script was “torn apart,” but everyone concurred that I received the worst kind of feedback: none of the judges could agree. The first panelist recommended I exorcise the ghost from my film–hence turning my “girl with a ghost” movie into… a “girl with no one in particular” movie. The second panelist liked the ghost, but felt the tone of the script was too varied. The third panelist literally said I could keep the ghost or get rid of him… it was a stalemate. That might be good for chess matches against robots, but it wouldn’t cut it for a competition in which my ability to revise this script was a key part of winning.
I felt like a zombie that day. Like I had blown whatever chances I had in this competition. If I was going to make it to the next round, I would have to pull a Hail Mary pass to the endzone. I’d have to split the D and deke my way past the goalie. I’d have to baseball reference. Grand slam? Whatever. I would need to re-write almost everything.