Friday, April 20, 2018

Our future is written by all of us

17 chairs set with flowers to
represent those killed in Parkland
One of my biggest concerns in middle school was whether or not my blue Music in Motion t-shirt was clean on the days we had performances. We didn't have school uniforms so making sure my choir shirt was ready to go was a new concept for me.

That was the extent of my worries back then. As it should be for eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds.

But today? Today I stood amidst 1800 middle school students who are concerned they are going to be shot and killed on their campus. They're concerned their friends might be shot and killed. They're concerned that they'll lose the people they love because all around them people are losing the people they love.

The middle school Angela works at is a representation of the best and the worst of Los Angeles, of California, of America, of our world. Of the 1800 kids who walk through those doors every day, some don't speak English well, some don't have two parents at home, some are taking college classes, some have celebrity parents and are being taught they should get special treatment because of that, some are Christians, some are Muslims, some sit down during the Pledge of Allegiance, some are transgender, some are citizens of foreign lands, some live in big sprawling estates, some share a bedroom with multiple siblings, some are sweet and kind, some have chips on their shoulders, some cry at the drop of a hat, some fight like they're in the ring every day.

But today? On this bright Friday morning in April? They all had one thing in common. They all wanted to be safe. They all expected to be safe. Because they were at school.

But that's not a given anymore. That's not a given anywhere in our country. And these kids, they know that. They know about gun violence and the horrors that surround that. All too intimately. I didn't know a thing about guns growing up. My grandfather hunted but that's all I knew. I knew I didn't like venison but I ate it. That was enough.

These kids today, they stood up and they spoke. They read speeches they'd written. They held signs they'd painted. They spoke from the heart about wanting the people in charge to be better, do better. They spoke of Congress and working for common sense gun control. They know so much more than I did at their age. And that breaks my heart.

I stood there, amidst the students, taking photos, and listening. And crying. A boy got up to speak and though his thoughts weren't coherently laid out, his emotion was raw. He didn't want people to keep dying. A girl got up and she expressed concern that it would happen next at their school, and she was terrified of that. Their concerns, and their emotions, were so powerful. So strong. So grown-up.

The world is so much different today than it was when I was in middle school. It's bigger and at the same time, smaller. We know so much more, for better and for worse. And we have so much more influence.

These kids. They have influence. They have voices. They reminded me today to have an opinion and to share it. To use my voice. To not fall into the trap of believing I can't change the world. We all can, whether we're twelve or forty or eighty. As President Obama wrote about the kids speaking up from Parkland, Florida, in this week's issue of Time Magazine:
Our kids now show us what we’ve told them America is all about, even if we haven’t always believed it ourselves: that our future isn’t written for us, but by us.
Our future is written by us. All of us. We have the agency to enact thought. To enact action. To enact change. We all do. Kids and adults alike. Thank you, JB Bears, for reminding me of that this morning.

The leadership team who created the event

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Writing Every Second I'm Alive

The notebooks from Doris
"How do you write every second you're alive?" -- Lin Manuel Miranda in the Hamilton song Non-Stop. 

My answer?

How can I not.

Last week my parents headed out on the second leg of their road trip. They'd been with Angela and I on Abbey Place for just over two weeks. It was a wonderful vacation -- for all four of us. We had adventures every day. One day we went wine tasting in east Los Angeles. One day we watched a baby hippopotamus sunning herself by a cement pond. One day we watched a silly movie about gnomes while laying in leather recliners. One day we explored a pier and ate ice cream while shivering and trying not to be too upset at ourselves that we'd gotten us lost and driven an extra hour away from where we were meant to be (that last part might have just been me). But every day was wonderful. Every day was something new. Every day was putting together jigsaw puzzles and watching new television shows and discussing current events and eating new foods and fixing the toilet seat and doing seventy-two loads of laundry. It was life. All of it. It was our best life.

When my mother first arrived she asked if I had to work the next day. I quickly answered nope. The next day she inquired again, and I expanded my answer a bit. I didn't need to sit at my desk and write that day. I had known of their arrival and our stay-cation in Los Angeles. I had planned to turn in a draft of a screenplay the day before they arrived and I did. I had let people know I'd be away from email a bit and taking some time away from the keyboard. Just as I do whenever I go to Michigan or on any other trip.

I wanted to be in the moment with my family. I wanted to be downtown riding the funicular and at the Getty looking at the Monets. I wanted to be shopping at the mall with my mom and getting pedicures with dad and not worrying about work. Yes, a luxury. Yes, a privilege. Yes, a reality since I'm underemployed at the moment.

But I also knew that I would be writing every single day they were here. Just as I am writing every other day of my life. In the song the question is asked of Lin's Hamilton how do you write every second you're alive. Every second.

And my answer is how can I not. Because every single thing that happens to me, every choice I make, every emotion I experience, every piece of food I taste, every sip of wine I savor, every person I communicate with is all leading to the stories I tell. They are all a part of the stories. They are all the stories.

I grew up hearing the phrase "write what you know". And as a young writer, and an aspiring professional writer, this was not good advice. This was ridiculous advice. I knew nothing. I'd experienced nothing back then. Still today -- it's not enough. I need to know so much more in order to tell stories, to do my job. Because if I were to only write what I know, then I'd write about a woman who sits in front of her keyboard and daydreams and taps on keys.

But there's more to unpack in that phrase. If I don't take it so literally, that I should only write about teaching and volunteering and watching TV and cooking and doing laundry, I come to understand that writing what I know is writing about the experience of being me. It's writing about the people in my life, my connections with them, it's writing about the work that I do, and how it affects myself and others, it's writing about my emotional life, my life.

And so, every day that I got up and ran to the fancy donut store early to surprise my family or sat down in the living room while my parents did the dishes because I'd cooked, I was writing. I was having experiences in being me. I was having experiences to draw from. To use to color my worlds. To use to create my worlds.

Yesterday I started a big rewrite project on my SEAL team pilot. I'm creating new characters and fleshing others out. I'm exploring new worlds and delving into relationships I've never had. I don't know what it's like to be the President of the United States or a CIA agent or a father. But I'm going to write about all of those things. And I feel confident in doing that even though it's "not what I know". I feel confident because of all of the experiences I've had in my 40 years. In the last few years. In the last few weeks. Every day I pull from my life. From the life I live, from the life I watch others live, to write the best stories I can.

A year ago today Angela and I were on our spring break trip in San Francisco. It was the last night of our stay and we sat in floor seats in the Orpheum Theater and watched Hamilton. It was one of the most amazing nights of my life. Here was Lin Manuel Miranda taking everything from every single day of his life and creating this musical. This movement. This masterpiece. Yes, Hamilton is about Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. But it's also about being an immigrant. Being a father. Being a son. Being a scholar. Being a husband. Being a friend. Being afraid. Being strong. Being weak. Being unafraid. All things I know Lin has experienced in his life.

Being a writer is a 24 hours, 7 days a week job. It's not something I turn on and off. I may go days without putting fingers to keyboard, weeks, months even. But I don't even go a few hours without writing. Other creative types know this. And the people in my life know this. And I love that. I love the encouragement I get, to keep writing. To keep going, Non-Stop.

This past fall I got a package in the mail from one of my favorite people in the whole world, my cousin Doris. In it was an assortment of beautiful notebooks. Small, large, colorful, practical, perfect. She'd seen them in a store and knew immediately that Angela and I needed them. We needed them to write down the experiences of being us. Because we all should. I love that. So much.

We are all writing every second we're alive. We're writing our lives. We're writing our existences. We're writing our relationships. We're writing our stories. And I'm so thankful I get to write my stories into other stories for the world to hopefully one day read, and see. And I'm so thankful to open a brand new journal from Doris today and start taking notes.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A Shadow on the NCIS set

"I don't understand wanting to be at a party by yourself, I really don't." -- Ava DuVernay

I heard Ava say that on a podcast yesterday. She went on to talk about creating opportunities for others, speaking specifically of black people, women, and minorities. She talked about how this industry is social, it's all about who you know.

"Hollywood is wired like that. The real inclusion and diversity is going to be when we know each other. It's not checking off quotas of how many women and how many black people you let do the job. It's do you really know us and feel comfortable with us. And do we feel comfortable with you to be our true selves," said Ava.

Rocky Carroll & I on the set of NCIS
A few weeks ago I got an invitation to a party from one of my first Los Angeles friends, Pauley Perrette. The party? The filming of an episode of the show she stars on, NCIS. And I accepted that invitation so fast my head started to spin. I also accepted that invitation with gratitude and love and appreciation. It's not an invitation that many get. Especially not many women. And when Pauley first asked me, back in December, if I'd like to shadow a director on her show, I was blown away. Pauley is a sweetheart, this is not news. Pauley also has given me many gifts over our almost decade-long friendship. But this was a gift like nothing I'd ever been given before. And one I knew could change my life.

And so she arranged it: I would shadow Rocky Carroll, for the upcoming episode he was directing of the show's 15th season. Rocky also stars on the show as Director Vance. He's relatively new to directing (in his words), this marking only his seventh time behind the lens of the CBS drama. He would also act in this episode so I'd get to see some of both of his worlds.

It all came together quickly and I found myself on the NCIS sound stages on a bright Thursday afternoon in February, sitting in the back of a conference room, listening to the table read of the episode Rocky would be directing. Basically the actors and director and some producers and key crew members gather together and listen to the actors read the script aloud. It takes just under an hour. Afterwards I met Rocky and told him I'd see him on Friday. He said I could come in around 10 or 11am, whenever I wanted. I asked him what time he'd arrive. He said 7am. I told him I'd see him at seven.

And so began my nine days shadowing a working television director. (Each episode takes 8 days shoot, and then 1 day for the table read.) Every day was a long day. Shooting lasted for at least 12 hours each day, with our longest day being closer to 16 hours on set. Add in an hour's drive time each way for me and it made for a long few weeks. (Add in a head cold I got the first day on set and it became a little bit longer.) But in those long hours I learned so much more than I could have ever imagined.

I learned that communication is a director's best friend. In my shadowing I would literally just follow Rocky around all day long. And he was awesome about this. He'd get up from his chair and go talk to an actor and I'd follow him and stand a foot away, listening to their conversation. He'd sit behind video village (a large cart with several monitors where the director and other crew members can watch the take from the camera feeds) and talk to the director of photography and I'd sit next to them and listen. I watched as he'd take an idea from the writer of the episode or the script supervisor or the executive producer and go relay that to his team, to the camera operators or the sound guy or the actors. I was just always there, right next to him, right beside him, right across from him. I got really good about flattening myself against walls during rehearsals or being silent as I stood in the room watching a take live.

And yes, I really did just watch and listen, literally acting as Rocky's shadow. And Rocky was an amazing teacher. He said he's new to this directing thing but really, he's great at it and knows just how to go about it. His cast and crew all love him and that shows in the respect he commands in the room, a respect he wields well to tell the best version of the story possible. So often he'd turn to me and explain his thinking behind a specific choice or a shot or a decision. He'd include me when talking to other crew members, widening the circle enough so that I felt welcome to join and listen in. He'd ask me about my projects and share stories of his own independent projects.

Having only been on a few film sets before I had just the barest idea of what it takes to pull together a frame of television or a movie. But seeing an entire episode filmed start to finish was something else all together. I saw how each department had to work together, how each department really was essential in telling the story. I also saw how much work some of the shortest scenes can take to film. An eighth of a page? Oh, we'll be done in no time. Cue us sitting behind video village, still waiting, four hours later, not having shot one single frame of film. And yet? Work had been happening the entire time.

I'm still processing so much about my time on set. With all of the waiting I was able to meet most of the people on the crew and who work on the show (around 200) and talk to a lot of them about their job responsibilities. (This happened a lot at craft services, i.e., where the food was.) I got to spend time talking shots with the cinematographer. I got to talk sound with the boom operator. I got to talk bullet wound placement with the makeup artists (who have the best coffee on set in their trailer). I got to hear about the life of a guest star while talking to the "bad guys" of the week who were there just to act in this particular episode. I learned a lot from the stand-ins who literally stand in for the actors, who go through the motions of the scene and read the lines, so that lighting and all other departments can get the scene ready for the actors to do their thing. (One of the stand-ins took me to the deli/ice cream trailer my second day on set. I will forever be grateful to her for this kind, kind, gesture.) I had several conversations, and listened in on several others, with Robert Wagner, an actor who has been in this business longer than most of us have been alive. (His first IMDB credit is 1950.) I got to be a fly on the wall as the show's stars chatted about every day things and the show's crew discussed weekend plans. I got to learn from some real professionals who have made 350 episodes of television together. (Yes, many of the cast and crew have been with the show since the start, over 15 years ago, and some were on JAG before that.)

And for a few days I got to get a giant hug first thing in the morning from my friend Pauley. Watching her work was great fun and chatting with her behind takes, having her introduce me to even more and more people on set, was wonderful. But reveling in the fact that she made the effort, made the gesture, to invite me, a woman who wants to direct, to shadow a director on her hit television show, was something I'm not sure I'll ever get over.

I spend a lot of time and energy reading and learning and talking about women in film (you've seen my posts about #awomanwrotethat #awomancreatedthat #femalefilmmakerfriday etc.). About representation, about opportunity, about story, about process, about getting a shot to tell stories we want to tell, we have to tell, and about getting an invitation to the party so eventually we can throw our own parties. And this particular invitation was the best beginning.

I made some contacts I'll keep up as I move along. I learned so much that I'll carry onto my own set in the future. In fact, I took some of that onto #thecouch set last week when I got to do some directing of my own. I tried to emulate Rocky in the way that he listened to everyone around him and fostered a collaborative working environment where people felt they could share ideas and be heard. And most of all, I learned that what I have to do, as a women in film, is share my experience. Share it through my stories but also share it with other women and minorities and people in general. That's exactly what Pauley did for me, she shared her experience with me. And I could not be more grateful.

And I can't wait for the episode to air the last week of March. I can't wait to watch the show and remember each and every shot because I was present at the filming of them all. I can't wait to bother my family (my parents will be in town that week!) with the 100s of pieces of trivia I have about the episode. (See that men's room in that shot? It's a working bathroom! I'm full of fascinating tidbits now!) Stories for days. Stories from the party that are my own to share now. Because I was invited. Because Pauley didn't want to be at the party by herself either. Because when we share our worlds with others, all of our worlds grow exponentially so much bigger.

Friday, March 02, 2018

My first day DIRECTING!

Additional Director Sarah Knapp!
Tuesday morning I sat in a straight-backed chair, my feet up on an Amazon box, the sweater on my right arm pushed up to my elbow and rewrote journal entries with the notebook at a particular angle and the pen just barely grasped by my fingers so that you might not notice they were my fingers. All of this happened as a camera recorded my handwriting, the words appearing on the page and the journal entries growing longer with each shot. We did this for several hours. First with me in the chair, then with Ayelette, the star of The Couch, in the chair.

This is movie magic.

This is how a few seconds of a scene are made. Rubber bands and scotch tape and Elmer's glue holding the magic together behind the scenes. Whatever it takes to get the shot. Counting to twenty in my head to make sure we got enough footage at the end of each shot so that people can read the journal entries. And then Linda tapping me on the shoulder after enough time passed because we decided I count way too fast and can't be entrusted to tell time!

We're almost done with our web series The Couch. Tuesday was our last day of filming, a day of reshoots scheduled after a good chunk of the series has been edited and is in the throws of post-production. Takes are being assembled on screen, music is being written (we have our very own composer!), and one last scene had to be written and filmed to pull it together. That's what Tuesday was for, along with reshooting some of the written words on the page so that they are clear and readable.

And because our awesome director Katy had to be on another set that day, I was asked to step in as an additional director on the series.

Yep! That's right! Not only was I sitting (kind of) in front of the camera on Monday, I was also behind it for most of the day. I was helping to figure out the scenes, the shots, and -- just like you've seen in the movies -- calling Action! and Cut! to start and end filming.

And let me tell you, it was pretty freakin' cool.

I loved the idea of being a part of it. Of being one of the four women in the room making something. We all had very specific jobs. Actress, producer, script supervisor, writer, additional director of photography, director. Many jobs, just four women.

And we had a wonderful, productive day.

We did the reshoots. We worked together to get them just right. With someone in front of the camera, someone behind it, someone next to it, someone running the stopwatch, someone watching for the sound boom, someone holding the boom, so much to do and focus on and yet, with all of us stepping in to help, it went so smoothly.

And at the end, I was so excited to tell them all that it was my first day directing -- directing anything! How cool is that. To get to direct on my first ever produced project. To get to play another role on this very cool thing we're making. It was really so cool.

As I spend more and more time learning about and from directors I have found the same advice popping up over and over -- surround yourself with smarter, more talented people than yourself. And I was so happy to be surrounded by these women on Tuesday who brought us that much closer to our finished product. Women who might have a specific role, say script supervisor, but might have the best idea for how to start the scene (thanks, Linda!). Women who share a vision to make something, to share stories, to share our talents and make things.

The Couch will premiere soon. I promise. And in the meantime, know that I'm having an amazing time making it for all of you, and the world, to enjoy!


The director's view, my view, of the new scene we shot Tuesday. #thecouch

Friday, February 02, 2018

Beyond Words...

The panelists: Jordan Peele, Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani, Virgil Williams, Steven Rogers,
Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor, Greta Gerwig, James Mangold, Michael Green,
Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, Graham Moore, and Aaron Sorkin
"I can't write until I outline every part of the story."
"I can't write with an outline at all."
"I love 3x5 cards."
"I spend a lot of time laying on the couch."
"I have to write to understand how I feel about something."

These are all things that were said last night by Writers Guild Award- and Academy Award-nominated screenwriters at the 2018 Beyond Words panel at the Writers Guild Theater. And they're all things that I've said to myself over the past seven months that I've been rewriting my feature film script. And over the past ten years as I've been writing script after script.

Last night reminded me that I am not alone in this profession. That I am not weird. That how I write, how I create, is not an anomaly but just how I write. We all write the exact same way. We all write completely differently. We all write. And that's what Aaron Sorkin pointed out when he said it doesn't matter how we do it as long as the words get down on the page.

These past few months have been exhilarating. To know that my story, the one I've been writing for so long, will be heard sooner rather than later, and seen, is amazing. But it's also not a reality yet. For now I am still behind the same desk, fingers on the same keyboard, fighting the urge not to check social media just one more time, or open up Words with Friends to see if any of my friends want to help me procrastinate just a few more minutes.

Yes, we've had meetings. Pre-production meetings during which we talk about story and budget and casting and it's so exciting. It really, truly is. I've started to really work on learning as much as I can about directing. I visited an acting class where I got to see a little snippet of the work actors go through to make my words sing and dance. Next week I'll go to the first directors' workshop event of the year through Film Independent and hear from Greta Gerwig, who's been Oscar-nominated for writing and directing her first feature film. And in just over a week we'll have a our first table read for the film. Twenty people will come together in a room and read my script aloud so I can hear what works, and what needs to be worked on. It really is terribly exciting.

But most days, I'm still sitting here, at the computer, typing away. If I'm lucky. Right now my fingers aren't doing too much typing. I'm doing a lot of reading, a lot of research. I've gone back to the television world and I'm working on a pilot. I'm writing about the military and Filipino sisters and nuclear weapons again. And I love it all.

And I loved sitting in the theater last night, listening to these amazing writers and directors share stories that made me feel like I was one of them. That we were all in this crazy writer life together.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Advent Devotion #2

Isaiah 9:6-7

I am back in Michigan, celebrating the holidays with my family. Tomorrow, we will host about 100 people at our house, for our annual Christmas Open House. We’ll eat, drink and laugh all day and night long. It’s a highlight of the season for us and we look forward to it all year. And then by the end of the night, as we fill the sink with soapy water, as we gather empty cups, as we pick up crumbs and rearrange the furniture, we’ll wonder, exhaustedly, what we were thinking having this many people over!

But as we finish the chores, and sit in the living room around the big Christmas tree, we’ll recount the day and the people, we’ll relive “the joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings” as the author of Isaiah puts it so aptly. “For a child has been born – for us! The gift of a son – for us!”

Christmas is a time of sharing. Sharing love, sharing smiles, sharing time, sharing gifts. God shared His best gift with us during this season, His Son. And it’s a moment to be celebrated. With “festival joy” as it says in Isaiah! With others? Yes, I love those quiet mornings spent by the lit tree, sipping coffee, reading a book. But I really love those evenings spent sharing stories with family, laughing with friends, catching up with people I don’t see in person often enough. That festival joy is contagious and it carries us through the rest of the winter. It gets us through the dark nights and the cold mornings. It gets us to Easter, to the spring, and the redemption, we all so desperately crave.

Over the next few days, consider how you can participate in this “festival joy”. Maybe it’s sharing Christmas dinner at the church, eating or serving, just being a part of it all. Maybe it’s smiling at a stranger in Target as you rush to get that one last thing. Maybe it’s sitting with someone who doesn’t get to tell her stories that often. Or maybe it’s simply by worshipping in a crowd on Christmas Eve.

Christmas is a great celebration. God has given us that gift. Use it. Embrace it. For Christmas comes but once a year.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Advent Devotion #1

Every year Hollywood United Methodist Church asks us members to write advent devotions. Here's today's, the first of two I wrote this year: 

Isaiah 12:2-6

“Yes, indeed – God is my salvation. I trust, I won’t be afraid.”

Hmmm…I won’t be afraid. And yet? I’m terrified. Will there be enough money for rent? Will I sell my next project? Will my family member recover from this bout of illness? Will we stop global warming in time? Will we save health care for me and everyone I care about? Will I make a difference? Does it even matter?

I’m terrified. So much of the time. And yet?

“Give thanks to God. Call out his name. Ask him anything!”

Anything? Really??

I take comfort in that. In the notion that as the scripture says, as I ask, I should “joyfully pull up buckets of water from the wells of salvation”.

It’s hard not to be afraid. And yet? This time of year, this season, makes it a little easier not to be. Yes, the cookies and the carols and the festive colors and decorations help. But knowing that “the Lord God is my strength and might” is really what does it. Knowing the story of that little baby lying in a manager and how He will save us all. That helps. That gives me the ability to lay my head down at night, to close my eyes, to whisper my fears and my hopes into the darkness, and to believe that God will take care of it all.

Because He promised. Over and over. Day after day. He promises still. He is mighty. He has done wonderful things and He will continue to do wonderful things.

I won’t be afraid. Not this season. Not when I have the promise of that little baby in my heart.