Like a Dog with Chocolate: Why I Keep Coming Back to NY Indie Film (Even Though It Makes Me Sick)
by Aaron F. Schnore
I once read this great David Lynch quote, where the iconoclastic director explains why he keeps returning to TV despite repeated failures. I'm paraphrasing here, but Lynch said he's like a dog with chocolate. He knows TV (the chocolate) is gonna make him violently sick, but he just can't stop eating it. I can relate. If I'm a dog, then New York independent film is my chocolate.
My name is Aaron F. Schnore and I'm human. I've lived in NYC for the past 11 years. I started writing scripts ten years ago when my step-brother and I wrote an oddball script called LUST AND RUST AND ROY over e-mail. It wasn't so much a script -- it was more like a weird prose poem in screenplay format. In other words, it sucked. But it actually got a few nibbles (and prompt rejections) from producers. When I got that first voice mail from a producer requesting LUST AND RUST AND ROY, I'd tasted the chocolate. And it made me sick. But to this day, I keep coming back.
I've known Jim Cirile for most of my screenwriting career, and like many of you, he's my go-to guy for script solutions. I consider Jim not only a friend and an amazing screenwriter, but also a mentor. I'm also proud to call Jim a collaborator after we recently co-wrote and co-produced a comedy short film called SHOWDOWN OF THE GODZ, co-starring George Takei (a/k/a Mr. Sulu from STAR TREK). When Jim asked me to write an article for the CI newsletter, discussing the ups and downs of writing (mostly) independent film scripts for New York producers and directors, I was honored. But let me say upfront, I have no beef with big, Hollywood studio filmmaking. On the contrary, I would LOVE to sell a mega-budget, Will Farrell vehicle optioned to a huge studio for high six figures. I've written a few big budget specs. But most of my scripts are New York-based, low-budget independent film projects. It's the world I know.
Some back story. A huge milestone occurred for me back in 2002. I had just gone through a painful separation and 9/11. Life sucked. But then my collaborator Billy Fox became Top 50 finalist in Project Greenlight for our screenplay MANTECA, a period piece about the legendary, hard-living Cuban percussionist and composer Chano Pozo. I'd had some success with screenwriting competitions in the past, but nothing like this! I was rejuvenated. Around this time, I also met a cool and talented Haitian-American film director named Phil Roc. We clicked, and almost immediately we wrote this gay/teen-themed indie script called CRAZY IN HEAVEN. I pitch it as "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN meets KIDS". CRAZY became a Top 20 Final Draft finalist, a Sundance Lab finalist, and got a lot of nibbles from legitimate production companies. Then MANTECA got optioned by an upstart prodco in L.A! Another one of my scripts -- a big-budget drama about a middle-aged woman with a gambling addiction called PLAYING WITH THE QUEEN OF HEARTS -- was getting major heat from Lifetime. Olivia Newton-John was interested in the lead role! After years of spec scripts, contests, and query letters, things were looking up. Damn, that chocolate tasted good.
Unfortunately, things turned... bitter. MANTECA went into turnaround, and the upstart production company dissolved. CRAZY IN HEAVEN generated a huge buzz, and had an Oscar-winning producer attached and championing it like Ari from ENTOURAGE, but no producers (big or small) thought the "gay teen" theme would play in the red states. We got more passes than Terrell Owens. Then Lifetime passed on QUEEN OF HEARTS because they were committed to producing a Delta Burke film about -- what else? -- a middle-aged woman with a gambling problem!!! Great.
Did I stop eating the poisonous chocolate? Hell no. Phil Roc (my CRAZY IN HEAVEN co-writer) and I decided to make our own short film. With some help of my girlfriend Johanna Lewis, Phil and I wrote a script called AVENUE X (which you can watch at the AVENUE X website HERE), a drama/comedy about two deaf NYC teenagers who take an adventure-filled day trip to Coney Island to ride The Cyclone. We cast two real deaf teens, shot the film with a skeleton crew in two hectic days, cut almost every corner imaginable. We shot most of AVENUE X guerilla-style. Two scenes were shot in the wee hours on the NYC subway, including one with my sleep-deprived daughter (5 at the time) with yours truly playing her grouchy dad. For the film's most notorious scene, our fearless cinematographer Al Pollard snuck a camera on to The Cyclone. Those were two of the most punishing days of my life. It was unbearably hot, and Phil yelled at me constantly for my rookie errors as a de facto PA/script supervisor/actor. But those were also two of the best days of my life, and AVENUE X went on to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, screened at dozens of other festivals, and it won a bunch of awards. Phil, Johanna, and I also wrote a feature version of AVENUE X which we want to leverage into a feature film (a la great indie films that started as shorts, like RAISING VICTOR VARGAS, SAW, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, HALF NELSON, etc.). More significantly, making AVENUE X taught me a valuable lesson: I CAN MAKE MY OWN DAMN FILMS!!!
Two years later, I'm still following the same strategy: making my own New York indie short films, and backing 'em up with a killer feature script. I've cowritten/coproduced three short films since AVENUE X. There's the hip-hop/horror short RHYME ANIMAL, co-written with Billy Fox and Jorge Rivera, the story of a cannibalistic rapper who devours his groupies and rivals. We have a feature version in script form, and we're generating some considerable film festival buzz. I also co-wrote the NYC-based medical drama WHITE CURE (renamed SCIENTIFICO) for the German/Italian director Fernando Scarpa, which also has a feature script version attached. And of course, there's SHOWDOWN OF THE GODZ, due to start hitting festivals this winter. Standing on set, watching my childhood hero GEORGE FREAKIN' TAKEI, read lines I'd co-written was euphoric. At that moment I realized that even though screenwriting hasn't allowed me to quit my day job (yet), I've made progress in the past 10 years. Keep eating the chocolate.
My overarching goal now is to make a feature film by any means necessary. Seriously. This MUST happen by 2008, even if I shoot my own damn feature with a cell phone camera, in my small Manhattan apartment, starring a sock puppet. Fortunately, I have something slightly bigger in the works with my good friend Rik Cordero, a talented, renegade indie film director from Queens who shot his first no-budget feature film MEND when he was 25 years old. Rik's one of the hardest-working, most passionate filmmakers I've ever known. He personifies what New York independent filmmaking is all about: getting films made NOW. To check out some of Rik's work and reel, go to www.three21media.com. Earlier this year, we co-wrote a low-budget feature script (in one week) called INSIDE A CHANGE. Indie film gods willing, INSIDE A CHANGE goes into production this fall. Jamie Hector from THE WIRE is attached to co-star, and I'm beyond psyched. Wish us luck, and check out www.insideachange.com" for updates.
I'll conclude with some friendly, unsolicited advice to all the future Charlie Kaufmans out there. First, keep writing your big-budget, SFX-laden, multi-million dollar "tentpole" screenplay. Close that six-figure deal. Be the next Shane Black! But... whether you live in NYC, Los Angeles, or Dothan, Alabama... you should also consider augmenting your screenwriting portfolio with a self-produced, independent short film. What do you have to gain? A lot! Credibility. Great contacts at film fests. Self-confidence. Something tangible that industry folks can WATCH and EXPERIENCE. You don't have to live in NYC (in fact, it's better if you don't -- this city's expensive!). You don't have to have a lot of money -- hell, we made AVENUE X for under 2 grand. You just need a great story, an awesome team, and the will to get it done. One more thing -- before you shoot your short film, make sure the script ROCKS. Get coverage from Coverage, Ink... feedback from friends... from someone. Finally, keep eating that chocolate. It's good for you. Really.
You can contact Aaron F. Schnore at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about him here.