Clowns seem to be having a bit of a cultural moment, so this seems as good a time as any to confess that clowns sort of took over my life for a few years. Here's the story.
In 1995, I quit my job as an associate producer at ESPN, determined, like many a showgirl before me, to make a go of it in the movie business. I was 24.
I moved to the city and crashed on my grandparents couch in Stuyvesant Town, freelancing in sports television to earn my Gray's Papaya. But mostly, I threw my heart and soul into writing my first screenplay. It was called Clowns. With Clowns as my debut, I was dead-set on becoming the next Quentin Tarantino, or, perhaps even better, my new crush, Stanley Kubrick.
I had no mentor. I had never been to film school, never taken a screenwriting class. I wrote straight from the gut. I filled composition book after composition book with dialogue riffs. I had zero talent as a long-form storyteller. More crucially, I had no interest in becoming a long-form storyteller.
What I was chiefly interested in, looking back on it now, was myself. I've written a bit about this earlier, so I won't spend too much time on it, but what I was really writing during this period was an attempt at chapter one of my own mythology. I didn’t want to make films as much as I wanted to be seen as a filmmaker. I was drunk on both the art and myth of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest was the talk of the town), and his combination of cleverness, wit, and - critically - narrative elusiveness - became something of a holy grail to me. Deep down, I wanted to be a filmmaker that New York’s smart set really “got”: whose work was pitched not down the middle, but just out of reach.
Good lord, was I a pretentious asshole. And man alive, was I destined for a fall. This fall - the first of many - would take the form of Clowns.
To this day, I have no idea what attracted me to the idea of clowns. It had nothing to do with scary/murder-y clowns, the stuff that’s making the rounds today. (Although I did love Stephen King’s It.) What sparked my interest was the idea of the Clown College.
You may know that Ringling Brothers' Barnum & Bailey Circus - this is not a joke - runs an actual Clown College in Florida, where they teach young comedians the craft of clowning. I didn't care about the actual clown college, or the craft of clowning, at all. But the joke I could not get out of my head was the idea of an Ivy-League-ish college - all stuffy and traditional and tenure-striving and publication-obsessed - where everyone was in whiteface and floppy shoes. Where one could minor in Early Seltzer. And so on. I found this absolutely hilarious.
Suffice it to say that the screenplay I wrote, a painfully convoluted attempt at a black comedy, set at my fictional Clown University, was a mess. I worked on the screenplay for years, sustaining myself with sports television gigs, Xeroxing and snail-mailing drafts of the screenplay, again and again and again...and then, incredibly, a wonderfully kind independent businessman actually financed the damn movie. This lovely, well-meaning man even hired me to direct.
Believe me when I say that the movie is unwatchable. I was fortunate enough to cast a few remarkable actors, including Austin Pendleton, Jeremy Shamos, Adam Stein, Susan Blommaert, Daniel Pearce, and Christopher McCann. I met an incredible DP in Alex Buono, and an inspired costume director in Christianne Myers. But the movie itself, fittingly, died in the editing room, with 27-year-old me performing kind of a desperate Anthony-Edwards-ish CPR on its lifeless corpse. With my financier long having run for the hills, I hacked together a rough cut myself, editing in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment. Unmixed and unfinished, unaccepted by festivals and distributors, I begged someone at aintitcoolnews.com to review it. The reviewer, no doubt under the influence of some strong herbal medicine, said a few nice things. But that was as far as it got. Time of death: spring of 1999.
This trailer, uncleared music and all, is the only artifact of the film even remotely worth sharing. The rest of the film rests on an old beta tape on my bookshelf. It shall travel no further. You're welcome.
What the experience really provided me with was an incredibly valuable failure. I screened my whimpering little rough cut two or three times for friends, renting out the old Screening Room down on Canal Street. My friends' baffled reception - they wanted so badly to like it - was one of the most searingly painful - and creatively impactful - moments of my life. I so vividly remember thinking, watching my friends' confused, detached expressions:
Perhaps I should make a movie that brings these fine people along.
I had created a film without the slightest regard for what the audience would think of it. I was possessed by the idea that the sole job of the filmmaker was to entrance himself - that my own delight was the only creative north star I needed.
This concept isn’t as megalomaniacally wrongheaded as it sounds. Artists are supposed to trust their gut, right? We love art made by crazy mavericks. We hate phony corporate hacks who entrust their art to focus groups; who kowtow to executives; who complete their finishing touches in a craven state of second-guessing.
And yet. The truth I have come away with, the truth that guides me to this day, is that there is a constant back-and-forth between what do I want and what will other people like.
Absolute fealty to either pole - at least in my case - doesn’t work. The process of making something, for me, requires a series of deep dives into my own gut instinct (writing), alternated with an open-door policy of constant workshopping, pitching, road-testing.
Stephen King put it awfully well, in his superb book “On Writing”: you write the first draft with the door closed, and the second draft with the door open.
The ratio, on the other hand - the amount of time you spend at either extreme - is the x factor, the asymptote, the unsolvable personal mystery. Just when you think you've got your process figured out - when you think you know how much "gut instinct" to use vs how much "listen to your audience"...the line moves again, a little further away.
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