The Story Within The Story

I had the most wonderful of experiences the other night, of all things while coming home from work. It really is a fun story, but to tell you about it I need to explain a few things for those who do not live in Los Angeles. Please bear with me as I set up the story.

For starters, the first thing you need to understand about LA is that we love our stories. Between the film industry, the television industry, the gaming industry, the music industry, and even our growing fine arts industry (because it is an industry) there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people living in LA who create the stories we use to entertain ourselves. We all work to make the stories you like to read/see/play/buy. Just to give you an idea of the reach of these various entertainment industries, consider the block where we live. Its a solid middle to upper middle class neighborhood in the middle of the valley.  On this small block of 18 houses lives an advertising guy (me), an actor, a television director/writer, a explosions/special effects expert, a mid-level manager who is also a screenwriter, an advertising director/producer, and an accountant. All of us making money as a result of our participation in the entertainment industry. That’s 6 out of 18 houses that get their money from entertainment.

But its not just a money thing. We also consume the stories we help to create. We read books, watch movies, binge watch TV shows, listen to albums, play games, all of these things and more. We do this because the creative process is not a one-way experience. It requires input to maintain itself. So we consumer what others make because it drives us to make more and better work.

So we make stories and we consume stories. But there one more way we interact with stories, and this is by far the biggest and most important one; we become them.

For example, consider the lowly film school graduate, of which there are legion in this town. She comes to this city to learn how films are made, and in the process of her studies will make some films herself. She will become an expert at the various directors and their schools of filmmaking, she will consume art films, and foreign films, and even begrudgingly tent-pole films, and she will always be working on her own small projects. She’ll be writing or directing or producing, or editing, or even just holding the microphone on someone else’s movie. She’ll be involved in something. Why? Because this is how one moves up the ranks of filmmaking. But there’s one more point here about her experience, and its the most important part. During all of this schooling, and work, and part time jobs, and driving all the fuck over town, and holding cameras or microphones, she will also be dreaming. And what she dreams of is a very specific story, the most important story of all, the story within the story; the story of her success.

Success stories are by no means limited to film school graduates. They are essential to every person who comes to LA to make stories. Everyone you meet who works in the various entertainment industries will have one. Mind you, success stories are not just limited to these industries, one might say they are endemic to ALL humans. But the success stories that are endemic to those working in entertainment are very specific, and all follow the same trajectory. They are all the Horatio Alger variety. A lowly filmmaker comes to the big city, works hard, receives a lucky break, and creates a piece of art so explosive and so important her pin is forever stuck onto our collective cultural map.

So endemic are such success stories that down here we don’t really talk about them. They are simply assumed. If you come to LA to be a (fill in the blank) you come here to fulfill your success story. Everyone gets that. Mind you, we do other things. We all come down here to work, and we work on something, because lets face it, someone has to pay the rent. But under all of that work and hustle is a story, and its such a powerful story that it gets girls and boys living in far off places to leave the comfort or their well-known worlds and travel to a city full of dirt, and crime, and cars (dear God do we have a lot of cars), all in an effort to fulfill that inner story. To take part of a larger story. To become a story itself.

Think about it. Who is Tom Cruise, or Oprah Winfrey? Who is Steven Spielberg, or Jean Cocteau? Who is Beyoncé or Tom Waits? Who is J.K Rowling or China Miéville? These are not people to you. You do not know them. You don’t really know almost anything about them. So what is it you do know? Their story’s. That’s it. When you read about them you’re not really reading about the person, you’re reading their story. When you watch Tom Cruise act, you don’t really think you’re seeing the real man behind the face. Or when Beyoncé sings about loosing a lover you don’t really think she just broke up with her husband do you? No. Do you really think that when Sting has a few beers with his mates they call him Sting? Of course not. We all get that we’re experiencing a story, that the person we’re looking up to is not really a person but a construct. A thing. That thing then is a story. And not just a story, a myth.

So we’re not just talking story here, or even story; we’re talking myth. Myth is the underlying story to this town, it is the gas that moves the cars of our collective egos, and you cannot understand this town or its people until you can understand that.

With that in mind, I will now begin with my story.

The other night I was coming home from work. It had been a long 10 hour day at the office. The kind where you eat your lunch at you desk because you’re working against the clock. We finished up at 8:15, but I stayed longer to eat dinner. (For those that don’t work in the industry, yes they often buy you dinner, but only because they need to to keep working). So at about 8:45 I requested an Uber ride. Within minutes my driver Fabion (call me Fob) showed up at the building near LACMA and the Tar Pits, and we were off for the valley. As with happens with Uber, the service will often see if they can double up on the ride. In this case Uber told Fob to pick up a guy named Dave in West Hollywood. So maybe 10 minutes later were stopped at some intersection in West Hollywood on a street covered in two-story apartment buildings dating back to the 30s and 40s. Suddenly the back door opens (I’m a front seat kind of guy) and not one but two men get in. They are Dave and his best friend Brent.

Dave and Brent are highly sociable, so we’re not even 100 feet into our trip when one of them says, “Hey front seat, what’s your name?” Before long we talking and carrying on like you do with strangers who are affable. Its the verbal equivalent of smelling each other’s butts to see what you’re made of. In this town it means talking about the entertainment industry, which really means talking about your dreams. Except, as I noted above, we don’t really talk about our dreams as they are implied in every conversation. So instead we talk about what we’re working on, which is a nice round about way of talking about your dreams without really stating them. (I know, its weird, but its how this town works. If you openly tell people your dreams you are immediately seen as a tyro, an amateur. You are a rube, and so wet behind the ears that no one except other rubes will believe in your success story. And everyone knows success stories have to be believable to work. That how they roll. So the serious professionals don’t talk, they do.)

Normally this is not my favorite topic of conversation. Probably 90% of the work I do is on television shows or movies that are so boring or so minor that you will have never heard of them, and unless you are a deep insider you will probably not care. Mind you, the checks go into my bank account the same as those from big name movies, but the social cachet I earn from the work, that is to say my rank as a “player” in this town, is not strengthened by such meager projects. So when people hear what I do for a living and immediately follow up with, “What are you working on,” I usually have to mumble something sad and pitiful sounding. But as it happens, right now I have a couple of nice aces in my hand thanks to some friends who called me in on a couple of tent-pole movies. All that to say I can do some serious name dropping.

On this particular occasion I really didn’t have to do that. Not 30 seconds into a description of one of the pieces I did for Jurassic World, we came to the corner of Hollywood and La Brea. High in the sky on that corner is a 14 x 48 billboard I did for the upcoming Will Ferrell series called Ferrell Takes The Field. So all I had to do was off-handedly say, “Oh that’s one of my pieces,” and I instantly tripled my street cred. Boom.

But, as I was about to discover, I was soon to be outgunned. Not only outgunned, but totally blown away. And completely and incredibly happy to be so.

Dave and Brent it turned out, had some street cred of their own. And it wasn’t that weak ass, second-hand shit I was passing out either. It was the pure thing. The Real Deal. The stuff that dreams are made of. We’re talking pure, 100%, USDA, success story. And it was joyous to behold.

Dave and Brent, it turned out, had just made a big pitch that day. They’d walked into a room full of 8 or 11 Television Executives (each with their own big salaries and fancy new cars) and ha d sold the shit out of their TV comedy series. “Basically,” Brent said, “we did 30 minutes of intense stand up in the biggest room we’ve ever played.”

“Yeah,” Dave added, “I’m not kidding when I say this. It was the most important room I’ve ever walked into.”

The two writers were roommates and had been busting their asses for the past three and a half months, working hard every day, coming up with every funny and off the wall idea they could throw into their show idea called Manhood. Then when their agent had scored a meeting they went in and sold their idea. Sold it hard. Sold it successfully too because they left that room, some 45 minutes later with a huge check and a contract to write a pilot. They had three months to write the Best Pilot Ever, and deliver it with another pitch to the same executives. If that went over well then they’d be given and even larger pile of cash and they would actually film their pilot. And if that worked, well the network might just buy their series. And then they will have made it. If the series sells. If the people watch it.

So it was a big day for them. They had made the first step on the story of their success, and they were full of the same excitement and energy as if they had won the lottery, which is a very real sense was what they had done. They had won the story lottery, and they were on their way up, because that’s how stories work. Whether it would take them up to the rarefied air of stardom, or down the wicked road of perdition, no one can say. But they were on the first step, and ready for the next.

But dig this, Here’s the crucial part. They were not just making stories, they had now become one. Their success had become a story of its own, independent of their actions. A story that would ripple that night through family and friends, and slowly in ever wider circles throughout the industry. Even to such far flung places as your mind, for this very thing you’re reading right now is essentially a ripple of that larger story wave. That night when they talked about their work they were speaking success story, in its purest form. Straight from the story mines of heaven and drenched in the beautiful humility of luck.

See they didn’t have to talk about their dream. They just talked about their work, and the dream was inherent in the work. Which is the best story of all.

And deep in the middle of they telling, drenched in the beauty of their own success story (which they were obviously editing as they went because that’s what good writers do) there was also the tinniest glimmer of humanity, and all because I threw in a wrench into the gears. See these type of success stores are wonderful and all, but they are often way too impersonal. And I don’t like impersonal. I like to travel with real humans and listen to real problems. So while they were going on about the room and the show, I asked them a crucial question. “Did you call your mothers?”

“Well,” they said breezily because they were still caught up in the success, “We called our agent first, and then our partners.” Then their tone changed, and a bit of the real boy came out from behind the successful men, “But yeah,” they admitted, “we called our mothers.”

So after they left (Fob dropped them off at a bar on Ventura) he and I just sat there silently the rest of the way to my house. All we could say was, “Wow.” Nothing else would do. It was an incredible experience, and we both felt deeply lucky just to be near it. We had seen a success story, just at the moment of its birth, and it was a beautiful thing to behold. I hope their mother’s are proud.