More About the Author
Here's a Q&A that USC did with me recently. It has all sorts of biographical information and I explain a bit how this book came to be. Enjoy!
Q: Congratulations on the new book, FILM SCHOOL: The True Story of a Midwestern Family Man Who Went to the World's Most Famous Film School, Fell Flat on His Face, Had a Stroke, and Sold a Television Series to CBS. When did you decide to chronicle your story with a book?
A: From the day I got my acceptance letter from USC. No kidding.
In researching film schools I discovered that very little was written about what it's actually like to go to film school. Anyone who is interested in law school can read Scott Turow's excellent One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School. Anyone interested in medical school can read Perri Klass' A Not Entirely Benign Procedure: Four Years as a Medical Student.
Film school? Zippo.
I had toiled a long time as a journalist before going to film school. I thought I could put those skills to good use. So I took notes and wrote some rough chapters along the way. Of course, I had no idea then what would eventually happen.
Q: One of your intentions in writing the book is to help future School of Cinematic Arts graduates with navigating the School. What, in particular, do you wish you would have known before becoming a student?
A: Some were really basic: I had only the faintest notion of how the whole process works at USC...how one progresses from making (mostly cruddy) solo films to making some very good group films and television episodes. I wished I known that the first year was all about making mostly silent films. I wished I had spent more time editing before coming - I was dreadfully slow on AVID, and it was always my Achilles heel.
Some things I wished I had known were more big-picture: I wished I had known that I would sometimes feel like a complete dumbass, or like the most uncool kid since 8th grade swim lessons. I once cried like a baby in front of a professor over a student film! Since I'm a grown man who has seen a lot of real babies cry, that's saying something.
I talk about all that in detail in FILM SCHOOL. My book is more about the emotional journey of going to the School of Cinematic Arts than it is a technical overview. So it's a little like a chick-flick. But there's also a really amazing car crash in it and some wrestling and partial nudity, so I think I have a lot of bases covered.
Q: It seems like you came to SCA with a pretty unique point of view, what was your journey before coming to the School?
A: It was a unique point of view for film students, but out in the real world I'm a pretty ordinary guy: I'm a soccer dad, I worry about crabgrass, I wish my mortgage payments were lower, I eat too many donuts when given the chance.
My journey is the odd part. I entered USC in my late '30s. I was older than most students, but not all. I had three daughters. I'd been married more than a decade. That alone made me a bit of an odd duck among film students.
My bio: I grew up in northern Minnesota and I went to a small college in southern Minnesota named after the great Swedish warrior-king, Gustavus Adolphus.
I got my first post-college job working as a reporter and anchor at Minnesota Public Radio. I then worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, and finally at a distressingly interesting newspaper on Chicago's South Side called the Daily Southtown. I freelanced a fair bit too.
In the midst of all that typing and talking I took a job at the University of Chicago as an organ transplant coordinator. Basically I organized the removal of livers from brain-dead people. I flew around the country in a private jet with a surgical team. I carried the cooler containing the liver. I assisted in a lot of surgical organ removals. It was an unusual job. I did it for a little less than a year.
After the journalism and organ carrying, I started a magazine called - don't laugh - GeezerJock. My business partner and I were dense enough to think we could make money producing a magazine for sweaty old people. We poured years of time into it, saw it grow to a circulation of 65,000, sold it, and then watched it sail away to the Bermuda Triangle of magazines, where it sank quietly.
So when I applied to USC I had spent a lot of time in media, just not much time in the world of moving pictures.
I also had spent a lot of time being a parent. Several years after we were married my wife entered medical school. Her training was grueling. I spent a lot of days and nights alone with our kids, changing diapers, going for walks, dealing with colic and reading Curious George and Goodnight Moon and many other books roughly a thousand times each to each of our daughters.
The basics of my arc are familiar to anyone who has been married for a while and has kids. The specifics are rather odd. And my wife and I have lived in a lot of different places, ranging from inner city Chicago and Philadelphia to small towns to the suburbs. I think all that moving helped me see past some of the cheap regional stereotyping that's so common in Hollywood.
Q: What were you surprised by the most when you transitioned to SCA?
A: That you don't judge a book by its cover. (Except in the case of my book. It has a really terrific cover, so judge away.) By that I mean there are students at USC who are terrifically talented and very hard working but who sometimes begin with a very low profile. The superstars in the early semesters are not necessarily the big successes later on. I learned to be patient, both with myself and in judging others, and trying to give people the benefit of the doubt. It's hard, because the School of Cinematic Arts is a really competitive place. Sometimes I got irritated at some really nice people. I wished it weren't so.
Q: With all of the adversity you have faced, what's the main lesson you have learned?
A: Don't stop moving your feet.
Really. If you do you can get a stroke. It happened to me. I sat for a long period of time and a blood clot hit my brain. That was no fun.
On the metaphorical level if you stop pushing forward nothing will ever happen. That's a guarantee. Nobody does anything by just dreaming about a good idea. If that were the case every person in the world would have their own television show or film deal.
Q: Three Rivers came out of a classroom setting. Tell us a little about the process of selling the show.
A: It was a very exciting process, and it involved a huge amount of luck, perfect timing, some talented people, a good idea and another big helping of luck.
I have to give a huge tip of my hat to Trey Callaway, a USC alumnus who taught my class, and Jack Epps, Jr. the head of the USC writing division, who was smart enough to bring Trey back to campus. When I considered film school, I only applied to USC, because I had hoped there would be opportunities like the one I experienced.
For all the juicy details you'll have to plunk down your money for FILM SCHOOL.
Q: The show had a short life on air. From your perspective, what went right and what went wrong?
A: What went wrong was we had about 9 million people watching it. We needed a few million more to keep it on the air. I'm not going to offer a postmortem. It was a nice ride.
What went right? Hell, we made it onto the air! We beat out the awesomely powerful Jerry Bruckheimer, who had a competing medical show lined up against us. A USC class project turned into a prime time series. That's pretty unique.
I was stunned when we went to pilot. That blew me away. The fact that we went onto a prime time slot for a couple months was just gravy. Don't forget I found out the show was going on CBS's primetime lineup just a day after I graduated from USC. That did not suck.
Q: That level of success is remarkable. Do you have any advice for other students who will skyrocket after graduation?
A: Well, one, my career didn't skyrocket. I made some nice money for a while and had a most excellent time being feted by some swell people. I'm now in the position where talented and connected people will at least give me some time when I have an idea for a new project. That's dandy. As I said before, I had planned to write this book before I started graduate school at USC. Writing it was hard - but it was a blast. I'm very proud of the book.
I've always admired people who could work in a variety of genres. Michael Crichton is a hero (having the series ER, the film Jurassic Park and the book Disclosure simultaneously at #1 isn't shabby). I admire the screenwriter and author David Benioff. I like writing fiction, I like writing non-fiction. I'd like to direct more too. I found that came fairly easily to me at USC. Maybe it's from having three kids and coaching many tiny soccer players.
I also get pleasure from working, so writing books and being in the moving picture business is a nice combination. Hollywood has a lot of "hurry up and wait." Book writing allows me to fill in the gaps.
Now, I have some financial advice as well for anyone who happens to sell something during their school years. During the time Three Rivers was filming, I went to a meeting for new Writers Guild of America members. An old WGA salt warned us: "When you get that first big check, don't do something stupid like blow it on a new car. You'll regret it!"
To that I say: hooey. If you get lucky, go blow some money on a stupid thing. You'll rarely get that chance again. When those Three Rivers checks started arriving I bought a blazingly fast jet-black V-8 muscle car - albeit one that can seat my whole family. If I want, I can do a burnout all the way out an elementary school parking lot! That's stupid. And fun. It was a dumb financial decision, and my wife grimaced, but when can you do such in thing in normal life?
By the way, my wife has now adopted the car as her own.
Q: What's next for you?
A: Speaking of stupid and fun, I've just got back from doing research into my second book, which involved riding a Harley-Davidson motorbike, solo, 11,000 miles around the United States and Canada in 28 days. I had so much fun writing FILM SCHOOL, and my publisher liked FILM SCHOOL so much, that I wanted to get started right away on another book. I wanted to write a book about tribalism and speed and the reigniting a lost passion and the long goofy history of motorcycling charlatans...and a road trip on a big honkin' sky-blue Harley is an excellent way to do it.
I'm also working with a group of really talented individuals on new television series we hope to get on the air soon. I've got a very insightful writing partner and we've worked very well together. I'm wearing sunglasses more so I can look all cool and Hollywoody when I say I'm working on a project that's once again "in development."