Building something new

From 2012-2016, I probably had the most/best creative output of my entire life. I hosted several popular podcasts simultaneously. I directed a film. I made a cello album, complete with multiple music videos that racked up thousands of views. But the past two years have been a challenge for me when it comes to my creative pursuits. There are multiple reasons for that, but the long and the short of it is that going at things so hard took its toll on my health, and I wanted to focus on other aspects of my life. I mostly swore off creating anything new as I’ve regrouped and reassessed where things have been going for me, and where I can apply my talents to make the most impact.

In the past few months, I’ve had several conversations with different people about launching different podcast projects, and it finally looks like one of them may launch soon (of course, if/when it does, you’ll be among the first to know about it). I love the process of creating something new. It’s fun to brainstorm about a new name, figure out what the art should look like, and consider how to get people excited for it.

It’s always more fun to launch something than to maintain it. The former is filled with endless possibilities. How well will it do? Who will listen? What awesome conversations might result from it? The latter, while still enjoyable and rewarding, is less exciting and ultimately becomes a big responsibility, especially if the show does well. One gives creative energy; the other one can occasionally take it away. But both are valuable in their own way.

I’m excited to take some baby steps back into this world and start making things again. You never know where things will go.

As I move through my life these days, I’m often reminded of the words of Terry Rossio, who wrote an incredible essay called “Time Risk” that still informs how I think about the world (the whole essay takes a couple hours to get through, but is worth it in my opinion):

When I was a college student at the University of California at Irvine, my very first theater class, the professor lectured for three hours about the arts, about how the days of our lives would burn up, one at a time, so which particular fire, meaning your career, might be worthy for you to be consumed? It was moving and memorable. He tied together art, to time. The beauty of being a writer is that you can instigate projects, you can make that choice of how to burn up those moments of your life. Producers must search, and struggle to find something worthwhile. Directors must search, executives must search, actors must search. Only the writer invents from nothing.

“Which particular fire might be worthy for you to be consumed?” Like most people, I’m just trying to choose the right fires.

The two conversations that defined ‘Better Call Saul: Season 4’

Here’s a brief video on what I loved about Better Call Saul this season – specifically, the two conversations in the season finale that define the arc of the characters. It’s really impressive when a prequel can chart new territory from its predecessor, and I think the show has done just that.I wrote, filmed, and edited this video over the course of just a few hours on Saturday. I hope you find the insights to be worth your time. If not? S’all good, man.

I’ve been under the weather after my trip to Virginia, and the travel didn’t improve things (it turns out when you have sinus issues, you shouldn’t get into an aluminum tube with recirculating air hurtling across the country at 500 miles per hour!). But I hope to back to full functionality soon. In the meantime, here are some interesting links I’ve come across:

Vlogging Virginia with an iPhone XS Max

It’s a rare thing to have your movie screened and to be able to host a Q&A about it at an Alamo Drafthouse, so I decided to use my iPhone XS Max to try to capture my recent experience in Virginia. I wanted to see how the new smartphone held up to as a vlogging camera, especially without any of the other accoutrements I’d typically need to shoot something like this (e.g. external recorder, gimbal, etc.).

In making this, I developed a much greater appreciation of what it takes to shoot a good vlog (iJustine makes it look totally effortless). In particular, I don’t think I shoot enough b-roll to transition from location to location. I also just generally didn’t have enough coverage — I tried to make this as a one-man band, but there are definitely a few moments that could’ve benefited from alternate angles. Overall, I optimized for enjoying the evening rather than shooting as much as possible, and unfortunately I think that definitely shows in the final product.

That said, how did the iPhone XS Max fare? Not too bad. I think when you have a decent amount of light (e.g. outdoor), it’s a fantastic vlogging camera. The image is solid and it gives you decent normalized stereo audio. But in low light conditions and in most indoor situations, the phone’s camera jacks up the ISO and provides some pretty aggressive noise reduction. There’s lots of detail loss and the colors and skin tones don’t look great (See: how this camera is really different than the old one). Without a camera app that gives you manual control of the settings, it can even be difficult to use with a decent light — just compare the first and last shot of the above video.

For this specific situation, the XS Max worked out great. I could travel light and shoot quickly. But if I wanted something more professional looking and sounding, I’d definitely go with something with a larger sensor like an Sony RX100, Sony A6000-series, or a Fuji X-T-series, coupled with an external recorder. It makes a difference, particularly if you’re viewing the video on anything bigger than a mobile device.

The cruelty of Trump

Adam Serwer, writing for The Atlantic:

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

Once you begin viewing cruelty as the end itself, as opposed to a means to an end, the policies and practices of Trump begin to make a whole lot more sense.

An Evening at the Alamo

This past weekend was very special. A few weeks ago, the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia invited Stephen Tobolowsky and I to a special “movie club” screening of The Primary Instinct, the storytelling film I directed starring Stephen. It’s pretty cool when any decent movie theater decides to screen your movie, so Stephen and I both traveled across the country to be there. We introduced the film, took a group photo with them, and did a Q&A and signing afterwards.

The screening went great. We sold out one of their larger theaters (We couldn’t get the largest one on Venom/A Star Is Born weekend, unfortunately). People laughed and cried. The person sitting next to me noticeably teared up multiple times. Afterwards, a huge line formed in the lobby and people bought DVDs and took selfies. They even asked for my autograph.

A woman came up to Stephen and I to thank us for the film. She told us about her parents were suffering from health issues (a topic which the film covers) and she said, “It is truly a gift to be able to hear your story from another person’s perspective.” I’ll never forget that.

While Stephen and I were very proud of The Primary Instinct, it wasn’t a movie that lit the world on fire in terms of attention or response. But sometimes, movies can take years before they find the people who will get a lot out of them. That’s part of what makes them amazing — they can still have that impact years, or even decades later.

Really grateful to all the folks who came to the screening, to Andy and the folks at Alamo Drafthouse Winchester for making the invitation, to all the people at who made the film possible, and to Stephen, who remains one of my best collaborators.

A few more stray observations from the week:

  • We don’t have Alamo Drafthouses in Seattle, so I was excited to take advantage of their presence in Virginia. Prior to our Primary Instinct screening, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in Charlottesville two nights in a row to see A Star Is Born and Venom. While I wasn’t a big fan of either film, I loved the filmgoing experience. The Alamo has interesting video essays that play before each movie. They famously and religiously guard against talking and texting during the movie. And they serve decent food that’s presented in a thoughtful way (waitstaff skillfully duck and jog through the aisles so as to minimize any impact on your movie enjoyment). Overall, I’m a big fan and wish I had access to one near me.
  • Speaking of A Star Is Born, I appreciated Alison Willmore’s essay about the film. As usual, she is thoughtful and articulate about what the film conveys about the pleasures and pitfalls of fame. That said, I feel like I saw a completely different film, which didn’t have any nuance or anything interesting to say in how it presented these concepts at all.
  • The Bill Simmons podcast has a fascinating, in-depth interview with Matt Damon. While Damon is a mega-superstar now, it’s easy to forget that not that long ago he was barely scraping by as an actor and desperately trying to get Good Will Hunting made with him Affleck in the lead roles. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on how mid-budget dramas have become nearly extinct at the box office these days, largely due to the decline of DVD sales.

The Daily’s coverage of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing

I’ve recently become addicted to The Daily, the New York Times podcast hosted by Michael Barbaro. The root of this podcast’s excellence lies not just with the smart questions and inquisitive personality of its host, but also the caliber of guests they are able to get on the show (presumably having the institution of the Times behind it is very persuasive). The Daily interviews the people who are making the news, not just those who are good at commenting on it. The result makes the listener feel like they are getting a “director’s commentary” of the day’s headlines.

The show is typically great but its coverage of the Ford-Kvanaugh hearing and its aftermath is superlative. It should become part of the historical document of how this entire sequence of events has gone down. I’d urge anyone interested to listen to all of it.

I’ve linked to every major episode thus far below but you can subscribe to the show on iTunes or via Radio Public.

‘Ready Player One’ and nerd culture

When I first saw Ready Player One, I was deeply unsettled by how the film handled nerd culture. It seemed to encourage the aspects of fan gatekeeping that has made online discourse so toxic. It made fandom into nobility. It made nerds into undeserving heroes. It was also just a noisy mix of different homages, action scenes, lights, and colors. I wasn’t a fan.

Youtube channel Renegade Cut has put together a smart video essay explaining why the message of Ready Player One is so toxic. I hope when people watch a film like this, they understand that these kinds of subtle influences can have real and unfortunate consequences.

The future of comedy

Jesse David Fox has written a great essay for Vulture on how comedy is evolving, especially in light of new “comedy specials” like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette:

“Comedy is always changing” was the one thing Federman wanted to make sure I remembered. It reminded me of my favorite line from I’m Dying Up Here, Showtime’s fictionalized drama about the 1970s L.A. comedy scene (talk about comedy being taken seriously!). After bombing at the show’s version of the Comedy Store, a Borscht Belt comedian (played by Judy Gold) a few generations older than the vanguard the show follows, says: “A hundred years from now, people are still gonna be listening to Beethoven and ooh’ing over Michelangelo, reading Shakespeare. But us? Jokes and shoulders, that’s what we are. Jokes for people to laugh at and shoulders for comics down the road to stand on … We’re just a faint echo in a joke told a hundred years from now.” It’s something I noticed working on the two editions of the 100 Jokes that Shaped Modern Comedy — every joke in history both built on what came before it and rendered it not as vital. The good news is, it’s not a zero-sum game. Tomorrow, John Mulaney isn’t going to go into Word, highlight all the punch lines in his act, press delete, and replace them with resigned sighs. And sure, the press materials for Amazon’s Forever say Yang and Hubbard literally told the staff to write fewer jokes, but a lot of those writers also work on The Good Place, and that show has a ton of jokes. There are still one-liner comedians today, 70 years after that fell out of fashion. But the progress will not be stopped. It is the only constant. Jokes and shoulders, that’s what comedy is. Well, maybe not jokes.