In the paranoia and fear of the aftermath of 9/11, three friends sell everything they own and go on the road to make a movie that encompasses everything these young men are experiencing.
How To Succeed By Failing is a memoir of what my friends and I went through to make this film and the tragedy that befell our group and our production. Below is a bit of my book for those of you who haven't already excitedly purchased it from Amazon.
Enjoy the beginning of How To Succeed By Failing.
Who the fuck would call me before 10:00 a.m in the morning? Those that knew me were well aware I was rarely up before 11. Now that I have been out of college for nine months, my daily routine consisted of mailing out headshots, writing poetry, watching movies, masturbating, working at night, and waiting for it all to begin. I had moved to Los Angeles, Culver City to be precise, halfway through my fifth year of college. I studied theatre and screenwriting and needed to get away from school and into the real world. I had a deadline. Everything was suppose to be up and running in my career by the time I was twenty-six. My friends were already in LA auditioning, making movies, and dating actresses. I wanted that life. I had been in twelve productions with my Theatre Department. I had started writing two screenplays and a stage play. I had slept with numerous young, adventurous women, girls really. I had already obtained everything I could get from a college education, minus the little piece of paper saying I had finished. Receiving the degree itself was of little importance to me. I was going to be an actor! I needed to upgrade my life.
Phone rang again.
In complete rage, I shot out of bed and grabbed my over-sized brick of a Nokia cell phone my mom had paid for as a graduation present.
Ricky, my best friend from college and old roommate, was calling. It was pretty early for him to be calling even though he had a somewhat regular job as a PA for a television show. He knew better than to call me that early. Maybe someone had died? Five months earlier, Davi, a good friend of ours from college had died in a plane crash. Talented kid who had the connections to be successful. He was the first person who was my age that I knew had passed away. His funeral was my first one as well. His death rocked my world. Made me question what kind of friend I had been to him and what kind of life I had been living. At the funeral, his uncle took a bunch of us aside and told us we needed to go out and make something, be successful, follow our dreams, for his nephew’s sake. What was I doing to further my life, to follow my dream?
I answered the phone reluctantly. “What’s up?”
“We’re being attacked,” he said in a quiet tone, almost void of emotion.
“What?” What kind of joke was this?
My paranoia was at an all time high. I had spent a lot of my post-collegiate time reading left-swinging literature and listening to liberal radio stations. We were at the beginning of the George W. Bush years, and I had strong opinions of where his leadership would take us. I was feeling an overwhelming guilt for not voting the year before. I wasn’t that political at the time and felt like my vote wouldn’t matter in a state that was already going to swing democrat. My college roommates were all way smarter than me and had all voted for Ralph Nader, thinking they were being so progressive and making a difference. Election night was filled with anger, frustration, and talking points. My lack of participation forced me into the quiet observer role on the couch. All I could say was, “If he’s elected, he’s going to lead us into a war like his father did.” That was my talking point.
Moving to LA had forced me into conversations that caused me to look a little deeper at my beliefs and formulate an opinion. Most of these conversations happened at Venice Beach. Dialogue would start and questions would be asked. “What do you think about this moron in power?” “What do you think about the Time Warner/AOL merger? Too much power in one place?” “What do you think about Globalization?” “How important is stem cell research?” “How do you feel about The Taliban?” High, anti-social, paranoid me would stare back blankly. I couldn’t stand feeling ignorant and callous. I had the right impulses but no context for them. So I started reading. The Communist Manifesto, McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, many books by Chomsky, and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book (which I actually did steal).
“We are being attacked!” Ricky yelled into the phone. “They hit New York and just attacked the Pentagon. Go turn on your TV.”
I hung up the phone and ran into the living room in my underwear. I had a flash fantasy of Top Gun type dogfights over DC and tanks driving through the streets of New York with citizens either running for cover or throwing fire bombs and rocks at the invaders. What I saw was more terrifying than I could imagine. I turned the television on and watched the screen repeatedly display the Pentagon in flames, the smoke covering the New York skyline, and the replay of the plane flying into the World Trade Center.
I lost my mind, screaming, “Oh shit! Oh my fucking shit! It’s happening!” I woke up my roommate and oldest friend, Nick.
Nick and I went to high school together in Napa, CA. He moved to LA two years prior and started making movies and auditioning. It was his life that I wanted a piece of. The reason I left school prematurely. Back in high school we dreamt of being in Hollywood together working as actors. When he had a room available in his apartment I jumped at the opportunity despite the looming credits I needed for my degree.
Nick was also the fuel for my political fire, constantly challenging me to read more, watch more, and be more. We spent many nights smoking cheap marijuana, or more often than not, the resin in our pipes when we couldn’t afford pot, and discussing our country’s problems trying to come up with ways to solve them. We thought of blowing up satellite dishes in order to slow the media’s spread of fear, writing political songs and poems, making movies with a message, moving off the grid and starting an artistic commune, and coordinating a massive march up to Sacramento. Obviously we weren’t going to blow up anything. A commune was too involved and expensive to start. We were disgruntled middle-class, white, young adult males who wanted something to fight for. We were idealists without an idea.
We did, however, try to organize a march to Sacramento. California was in the middle of an energy crisis where prices were increasing and every part of the state (except Disneyland) had to deal with rolling blackouts. We heard about deregulation, price gouging, and monopolization of power companies in California. We saw it as another way the people were being taken advantage of by those in power. Nick decided to utilize a friend of ours who had access to the addresses of every major and minor radio and television news station in Los Angeles. We created a manifesto, which we named All One, calling upon Southern Californians to join our march up to the capitol. We carefully worded our manifesto, and with the finesse of a thief, packed and addressed envelopes wearing rubber gloves. That night we drove all over LA dropping a couple envelopes in different mailboxes to not leave any trace of who we were. This was the first of our middle of the night missions. Our manifesto requested for everyone to meet at Venice Beach two Sundays from the mailing date. The next few days we scoured the news hoping to here something about our All One initiative. Nothing. The date for our march came and we forgot all about it, didn’t go to the beach to see if anyone showed up. We were at home, high, watching movies.
Nick was an instigator, a debater, and a leader. He had directed two feature-length movies with his stable of actor friends he collected in Los Angeles. He gave me roles in everything he made, and I got to show off my abilities as an actor to his people. He was two years younger than me but carried himself with the confidence of someone ten years older. He made the majority of the decisions for the group, and they would readily look to him to make those decisions.
My ego fought against him being the alpha, not because I wanted to be in that role, but because I didn’t want to follow anyone. He used to be the stoner kid with his hair in his face who went along with whatever. I was the college educated one, which didn’t necessarily mean anything. I was on my own path, even though he got me my room and my first restaurant job; the staple job for any struggling actor.
My sense of competition with Nick led me to be the most prolific I had been artistically, writing poems on the daily, drawing, writing songs, all to share with Nick in the “see what I can do” way. He would write poems, shoot short films and edit them, and write songs as well. There was a time when our sixties nostalgia made us believe we could start a band and make revolutionary music. Our conflict was who would be the front man? Who was the John and who was the Paul? Who was the Jim Morrison? Who was the Roger Waters and who was the David Gilmour?
My music and poetry explored not only my half-formed political views, but also my floundering philosophic beliefs on what was the purpose of our existence. My family had pulled out of the Seventh Day Adventist Church that both my parents were raised in when I was four. I had a basic knowledge of the stories of the Old Testament and the stories of Jesus. That was all they were to me, stories. I studied philosophy and comparative religion a bit in college and what I was left with was the idea that all religious stories were basically the same. Concepts of love and compassion and faith and joy were the things that all of them had in common. I likened my beliefs to John Hicks understanding that all religions were different roads leading up the same mountain, to the same destination. Overall, it was the value of human life that seemed most important to me. Nick and I would argue on the merits and shortcomings of religion and then use stories to come up with possible explanations of who we were, where we came from, and why are we here. That was one concept that plagued my thoughts and dreams. The Why. What was this thing called life all about and what was my place in it?
“Wake up! It’s happening!” I shouted.
Nick ran out in his sweats and stood in silence as we both watched the footage on CNN. It felt like this was just the beginning, like this was going to escalate into something greater and more horrific than we could imagine.
Strangely enough, two weeks earlier, Nick had a dream that an atomic bomb went off in Los Angeles. Nick worked as a valet at the high-end restaurant where he got me a job. One night, as a guest waited for his Bentley to pull up, Nick chatted with this man about our country and politics. Nick was savvy enough to not spurt out his liberal beliefs in a vomit of seemingly conspiratorial diatribe. I lacked that sense and would often get into massive debates with my dad and step-dad. All I had to back up what I was saying were my feelings and beliefs. The gentlemen he was talking to was an ex high-ranking Naval Officer. He informed Nick that there were threats made against our country and that we should beware. That night, his dream inspired him to take action. He woke me up. We drove out of LA waiting to watch a mushroom cloud in the distance. His fear was so convincing I went along, sleeping in a Walmart parking lot outside of Santa Barbara. We woke up at sunrise, cramped in his 1988 Jetta, laughing at how stupid we had been and drove back to LA.
He stood looking at the television screen without a word. I wondered what he was thinking, wondered what we were going to do. I ran around the apartment talking half to myself and half to him about the planes that were missing, the ones headed for LA, about his dream, about a plan, about someway to get the fuck out of LA, about what our government did to incite this.
Nick took off and ran to the hills near our neighborhood with a pair of binoculars and a BB gun. He was sure of an LA attack and wanted to be somewhat prepared for the anarchic chaos that would follow. I sat in my boxers weeping as I watched the South Tower collapse. I became overwhelmed with the massive loss of life as I watched the dust fill the streets of New York. I called my mom and my sister and told them both that I loved them. I would talk to them numerous times throughout the day trying to maintain some level of sanity, unconsciously seeking them out to keep me grounded, to remind me that I was alive, we were alive and that it was going to be okay. The mind is a powerful thing and can build up the worst possible fears especially with something so horrific happening on the other side of the country.
Paulo came over. He was the youngest of our group. He and Nick were neighbors when they both first arrived in LA. His older brother Vinny moved out from New York to watch over him, and the three of them got an apartment together. When the brothers decided to get their own place, I was able to move in. Paulo and Vinny were a part of all of Nick’s movies and Paulo wrote and directed his own noir thriller written entirely in Shakespearian verse. It was a bold endeavor for a nineteen year old. Fortunately he had his dad to bankroll the whole thing and Nick to take the lead in directing for him. He was a smart kid and a talented writer and actor but never had to work a day in his life. While Nick and I were poor because our jobs didn’t provide that much, Paulo was broke because of the limited allowance his family provided, yet always with the safety net of his father’s credit card which he used regularly.
Being from New York, Paulo and Vinny Angelone had a completely different experience to the tragedy then Nick and I had. It was their state, their city. It was just more personal to them. We lacked that connection.
Paulo, who was hard wired with a penchant to neurosis, brought with him a new level of anxiety and fear. It mixed horribly with the empathy I was experiencing. I had been sitting in front of the TV, crying for a couple of hours switching from news source to news source. Names started to be reported of possible perpetrators. They would flash images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Nick’s naval friend was right. I had to get out of the apartment.
We drove up to Nick’s lookout point. It was a Little League field on top of Culver Hills. We had used that field to shoot improvised scenes where Nick and I would take turns dressing as an inmate and the other would be his lawyer. Over the past eight months we had shot a lot of scenes and short films with just a concept and improvisation. It had become our acting class and directing class for Nick’s part. I probably learned more about acting in front of a camera that way than I had in all my years of college. Part of me had wished I skipped college and went right into Hollywood. I probably would have been eaten alive.
Nick was seated on the hood of his car with his binoculars pointed towards downtown. His Daisy rifle lay next to him ready for the throngs of terrorists to attack his position. It was comical in hindsight. I couldn’t tell if the rifle with him for mere comfort. Maybe he thought he could defend himself with it. The whole day played itself out like a Hollywood film filled with drama. Nick could have just been playing a role to the best of his ability and circumstance.
There was a sense of serenity up on that hill. We all stared off towards the buildings in the distance. No planes were flying at this time. The FAA had closed LAX and shut down all flights. Living so close to the airport had put us under the flight path of all incoming and outgoing planes. Only when the planes remained inactive did I realize all the noise the air traffic created. I was somewhere else for a moment in the silence, some other time, a time after the existence of people, looking at the ruins of a civilization.
“Lets’ go back.” Nick’s voice broke the silence.
“Yeah, I’m hungry. You guys hungry?” Paulo asked. Clearly, putting things into perspective.
“Nah, you guys go.” Nick got in his car.
I almost climbed into Nick’s car before I realized that I was hungry. I was upset and hungry and could use a cup of coffee. I pounded Nick’s car goodbye and hopped into Paulo’s car.
We went to Noah’s Bagels. The place was completely empty. Employees were in the back watching the news. I asked Paulo if it was typically this slow. He reminded me that there was no one on the road either. One employee came out to help us. We exchanged condolences for our country and the people who died.
An old man walked into the bagel place yelling, “Goddamn Arabs!” That began the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment plaguing the majority of the adult population that I came in contact with. It felt sickening, like how I felt in my Germany and the Holocaust class back in college. Even though we were warned about bin Laden’s attack and that it matched the methods used before by Muslim extremists, I couldn’t get on the anti-Arab bandwagon. “We don’t know who is responsible yet” was my response.
“You kidding? It’s that Saddam Hussein getting revenge for the Gulf War.” He looked at me as if I didn’t know how to spell “God.” “We were attacked, son. Never forget that!” After that moment, I never would be able to forget that.
Back at the apartment, I shared the notes I had written down from that conversation with Nick. “They have already mentioned bin Laden’s name seventeen times, Saddam’s name six times, and Al-Qaeda twenty-three times. There was also a video of Muslim’s from somewhere celebrating. They have created an enemy. We have our enemy.” He was right. An hour later we watched the video of Afghanistan being bombed. Had we already started to retaliate? If these were extremists from the Middle East, who is to say that was the end of their plan? What if it was just the beginning? Wouldn’t us bombing a country to punish a few only fan the flames of hatred towards our own country?
The fear returned and overwhelmed the room. We started to look up wind charts for nuclear fallout. How far away would we need to go to not be affected? What else would be a prospective target? Buildings? A city? We decided it would be smart if we loaded our cars with supplies on the off chance we had to make a run for it and got stranded somewhere. There was an army supply store near our place. I always drove by it wondering who was shopping there and how it was staying in business. On that particular Tuesday it was packed. As we scoured the store for desalinization kits, compasses, and can openers, we saw a mother putting a gas mask on her young daughter. What a frightening image of our future dystopia. We all stared at the tragic image for a moment and then decided to buy our own gas masks. Old Russian gas masks that would barely filter out tear gas let alone anything lethal. A tent along with sleeping bags, gas masks, pots and pans, bags of canned food, and bottles of water were all loaded into our cars. We were prepared for the worst.
Nick’s room had turned into a mini Situation Room. Nick, Paulo, Vinny, and myself were all seated in a circle with maps strewn across the floor and bed. Possible locations to flee to were discussed. Our paranoia forced us to look for places close enough for us to cross into Canada if things got bad. Canada made more sense than Mexico. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho was a beautiful lakeside town at the top of our country. There was a guy who owned a video store where I grew up who had moved to Coeur d’Alene because of how cheap and serene it was. The town name had floated uselessly in my head for almost ten years until that day when I threw it out as a possibility. The decision was made. We would move up to Idaho and wait it out.
Nick’s first feature was a film about young kids involved in a drug deal gone badly. His second film focused on the street kids of LA. Paulo’s movie was about a young man trying to find his lost love; she may or may not have been kidnapped or killed by an Asian gang. In the waning months of summer, we began to create a plan for our next project. We wanted to make something about the youth in Bush’s America, a story similar to Easy Rider or On The Road. Nick was going to direct and Paulo and I would star in it. That was about as deep as we had gotten into the idea until the tragedy of that day and the fears that followed. We decided we could shoot the “youth on the road” movie en route to Idaho. The plan was to sell our cars and get a SUV in case we had to drive off road. We would keep one other car with us in case we needed to split up or if one of the vehicles broke down. It felt like Red Dawn, but instead of fighting we were going to make a movie in the midst of a national crisis.
I called my mom to tell her our plan. “Okay?” That was her response. She spent a lot of my adult life humoring my decisions. My sister called to check in on me. She heard from my mom how broken up I was about the situation so she phoned me to make sure I was all right. I’m sure my mom had informed her on our plan as well. My sister took it upon herself to be my guardian at a young age. Probably around the time my dad left. That was when she wrote him a letter commanding him to be a part of my life and not fucking me up emotionally. She and I failed to maintain a close relationship throughout my college years. We were both doing our own thing, and I had become very independent of my family. Or at least I thought I had. I still needed my mom’s checks to pay for school and would still go to her house in Oregon every Christmas.
It was the Christmas before I moved to LA that actually brought my sister and I back in contact. As we sat together drinking wine and watching a Christmas movie, we started talking about our lives and our beliefs. I shared my pluralistic opinion and “all as one” rhetoric, my half formed understanding that we as humans are all part of the whole, not individuals but part of one larger organism, each integral in making the thing function. I shared my belief that art was the universal language and that the reason I needed to move to LA was to start creating art in order to make a difference. At the very least, I wanted to use my talents and my art to inspire people to think or feel differently from the norm or what they are comfortable with. Instead of humoring me, shutting me down, or brawling with each other like we did a few Christmases prior, she smiled and laughed, marveling that even though our lives split in two directions we had the same beliefs and came to a lot of the same conclusions. She felt like a massive shift was about to come and the world needed artists to help transition. She told me she was proud of me.
When she called me, I informed her of our plan to move to Idaho.
“Are you running away?” She asked accusingly.
“No! We are being prepared. Who knows what’s going to happen next?”
“You never know what is going to happen next in life. But you can’t run away from it. You wanted to make a difference, remember?” She was always the voice of reason. It pissed me off!
“We are making a movie up there. That’s the real reason for moving. We also need to be ready, to protect ourselves. To survive if we have to.”
Back in the Situation Room, Idaho had been canceled out. None of us knew anybody there except the video store guy whose name I can’t remember. It was also a snow town and we were heading into winter. Other suggestions were needed.
My mom lived in Salem, Oregon. She moved there from Napa when I was a senior in high school. Nick and I also had some friends in Seattle. Perfect. It was an agreement that we would go up to Salem or Seattle. I called my mom and told her our plan. Shocked by our sudden change, she warned me to not make any hasty decisions. She also admitted that it would be nice to have me closer to her, especially now. As much as I wanted to leave that night, there were practical things that needed to be taken care of. The decision was made to leave November 1. Giving us a month and a half to prepare.
As multiple channels played images of buildings collapsing, masses of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Congress singing “God Bless America,” and the face of Osama bin Laden, we decided to turn off the television for the first time that day. We went downstairs to smoke a cigarette under the quiet Los Angeles sky, marveling at the silence. In the peace that surrounded us along with the weight of my conversation with my sister, we began to formulate the foundation for our movie. It was clear that Nick would direct and we would all act in it. There would be no script only improvised scenes around key plot points. The story would follow two characters on a journey (Paulo and myself) a la Easy Rider. Along the way they would pick up another character (Nick) a la Jack Nicholson. That was about as far as we got before a military plane broke our peace and scared the shit out of us. “What is it? Why is it flying now? It is so weird to not have any planes flying. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Imminent changes in the daily life of people were bound to take place, at least that’s what I expected. Those attacks were going to be a crushing blow to our economy. People were going to be afraid to leave their homes. They would stop shopping, stop eating out, and stop spending money. That was the world I had assumed I would be walking into on September 12, but to my surprise the next day was business as usual. People hung their heads and had a whole lot more to talk about, but they continued with their lives. Maybe it was because we were on the West Coast and far removed from the actual attacks. We didn’t have to breathe in the lingering dust and smoke that filled the New York air. We didn’t have to witness a loved one not attend work the following morning. We didn’t have to divert our commute or not show up to work at all because the entire two-mile radius around our work was blocked off.
I went back to work not sure of what I was doing there. Customers came in. We talked about what had happened. “Such a tragedy” was the common phrase exchanged amongst each other. I made money then went home. Nothing had changed except for the people’s mentality. Everyone was a lot nicer. Doors were held open longer. Smiles and gratitude were displayed in public. Drivers slowed down and let each other merge (a huge courtesy in LA). A stronger sense of nationalism became prevalent. Pre-9/11, the city of Los Angeles had its cars adorned with flags celebrating the Lakers win of the NBA Championship. All summer I would see those yellow flags flanking eighty percent of the vehicles on the road. After 9/11 those flags were replaced with American Flags. Instead of glorifying a team the citizens of LA were glorifying our country.
The upcoming month witnessed Anthrax attacks against the national press, the passing of the PATRIOT act, and the start of our war with Afghanistan. Our fears were manifesting. My talking point of Bush leading us into a war had come true. I was overwhelmed by the helpless feeling of being at the mercy of my government. I heard theories on the public radio station of prior knowledge of the attacks from cabinet members and worse than that, possible collusion from key members of our government. I was afraid. Afraid of my government and afraid of terrorists that hated America for everything we had ever done to them. I was fearful and waited for the worst possible scenario to unfold.