[IN THE TRENCHES] Death by Creativity

Death from "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" (1991)
You’ve sunk my manuscript!

Are you too creative? Are you constantly thinking of one new project after another in almost any medium, even a few yet to be conceived?

I am. And I think it’s probably going to kill me.

I’ve talked long and often on this subject. The eternal battle between inspiration and time management. Discipline and dreams.

I mean, I can’t stop thinking up new ideas, and not even in some controlled number of mediums. Granted, poetry isn’t really my thing, but I get inspired to seriously consider dabbling in almost everything else.

It’s reached a whole new level over the past few months.

Inspired by a garage bandmate from way back when, I’ve even been thinking about writing and recording songs again. Sure, it’s a fun idea, but it’s also not healthy. There’s already too much to do!

Here’s what’s on my current agenda:

  • Do a pass on a new feature spec with my partner.
  • Draft an artist deal memo for an animated series treatment.
  • Adapt a series pitch doc into a pitch deck. With visuals
  • Adapt a screenplay into a comic miniseries.
  • Write my monthly blog.
  • Write an article for an outside film website.
  • Work my fulltime job.
Death from "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" (1983)
Was it the salmon mousse or the comic proof?

Right? That’s too much. And that list doesn’t even include hobbies or personal projects. Or sleep.

So, what to do?

Back in the day, a writer friend-of-a-friend talked about how he managed simultaneous assignments (I know, boo hoo, right?).

He said he’d “throw pages at them.” A few for job one, then a few for job two, and on and on and back to the beginning again.

This can work, I guess. But only in the way paying-the minimum-payment-for-your-credit-cards works. It’ll take a million years for you to complete any of those things.

Ideally, you should finish one project entirely before moving onto the next. But who are we kidding? We’re never gonna do that.

So, then, at the very least, you should chunk it. Prioritize the most important projects and at least complete a stage in the process before shifting over to a different piece. Finish an outline, complete a draft, hire an artist. Take them to their next milestone.

At least, that’s what I’m gong to keep telling myself. Maybe one of us will listen.

Send help.

Hand rising from grave
Wait! I have an idea for a poem after all!

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Upcycle

Derwin Jordan and Spero Chumas in "Shining City" (2013)
Before the hourlong pilot script for Shining City, there was a web pilot

If you write for long enough, you’re going to end up with projects in your library that you’ve pitched to everyone you could, but have yet to come to fruition.

You still believe in them, you still love the stories, but maybe you need to come at them differently than you have before.

I’m talking about upcycling. Reinvigorating those scripts with an entirely different kind of reboot, and transforming them into something new.

Like anything in the entertainment industry there’s no one way to make that happen. Here’s a few to consider…

SCREENPLAY TO NOVEL

Middle Grade comedy adventure novel "Monty and the Monster" (2019) by Rhonda Smiley

The most obvious path is the reverse-adaptation. Taking that screenplay and adapting it into a novel. It’s an opportunity to enrich your story, exploring deeper and expanding further.

It’s by no means easy, and writing prose might feel unfamiliar at first. But a veteran storyteller will eventually find their bearings.

On a practical front, it’s the least expensive route.

Although it’s a good idea to hire an editor or a proofreader, it’s not mandatory. And a cover can just be text alone. Basically, this route calls for plenty of effort and time, but doesn’t require financing.

My frequent writing partner, Rhonda Smiley, has adapted two of her scripts over the last few years. There’s the young adult fantasy, Asper, and the middle grade adventure comedy, Monty and the Monster.

They were both hard work, but the reviews and accolades have proven an excellent reward.

SCREENPLAY TO GRAPHIC NOVEL

Rhonda and I did this with one of our much-loved scripts, Blowback. It had garnered a fair amount of positive responses, including a First Place win for Science Fiction in the Fade In Screenplay Competition.

Blowback graphic novel (2021) written by Rhonda Smiley & James Hereth with art by Kev Hopgood, and color by Charlie Kirchoff

Nevertheless, we seemed to have trouble getting someone to fork over a couple hundred million to get it produced for the screen.

Instead, we decided that with its combination of time travel and intense action, the story would really work well as a graphic novel.

In a reverse from the prose novel, the graphic novel generally requires aggressively trimming down a feature screenplay for a more manageable page count.

Even with a shorter length, however, this can still be a costly pursuit. Experienced artists, colorists, and letterers don’t come cheap.

You can save some money by creating a partnership with an artist, but you’ll lose a lot of control in the process. As with all pursuits, the path that works best for you might be different from others’.

For us, the results were a book that was nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and won Fan Favorite Villain at the 2022 Ringo Awards.

SERIES TO FEATURE

Cover art of N.O.R.M.A.L., created by James Hereth & Rhonda Smiley

Rhonda and I originally conceived of the project, N.O.R.M.A.L., as an animated series. A treatment was written, episode loglines created, and artwork drawn.

Later, we realized it would instead make a great feature follow-up to our indie sci fi movie, Race. Easier said than done, of course (what is easier done than said, I wonder), but once we found the right story, the feature screenplay became our favorite version of the concept.

Alas, financing for that movie hasn’t come together. Yet. And as a result, we’ve come back around and revisited the series format as a spin-off of the potential movie.

Maybe a podcast version next?

FEATURE TO SERIES

During a recent breakfast with filmmaker friend, Mark Brian Smith, he talked about his experience adapting a feature spec into a series pitch.

Similar to a novel, your story might be better served with a longer run time. More room to explore your characters, expand their world, and see how the plotlines develop.

And taking into account the miniseries, the prestige limited series, the anthology series, and the open-ended traditional series, there are so many options to consider when mapping it out.

WEB SERIES TO TELEVISION SERIES

Poster for web pilot, "Shining City," (2013), created by Doug Stark

Another filmmaker friend, Doug Stark, created a web series called, Shining City, directing and producing the short pilot for it.

While that pilot didn’t ultimately develop into an ongoing show, it ended up being a launch point for Doug to write an hourlong script for a potential television version.

And for that, the short would serve as an excellent companion piece to demonstrate the tone, style, and direction of the project.

END TO A BLOG POST

While we’d always love to see these types of adaptations circle back to become the initial movies or series one day, the new iterations should be seen as end products themselves. Fresh ways to invigorate older projects and ultimately give them another chance to get in front of an audience.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[ETCETERA] Checking In

So, here we are, a couple of months into a new year and the question is: How’s it going so far?

Classically, creatives dream up ambitious plans and resolutions as one year turns to the next. But just as classically, those plans often crumble to dust long before we hit summer.

Airport Check in Sign

This is good time to check in and see what’s working, what’s not, what needs to be focused on, and what needs to be forgot.

Huh. That could be a song lyric. Coming soon to a Spotify playlist near you.

Anyway, if you do your check-in and things are going great, keep on keeping on. Sounds like your goals were well thought out and you’re doing the work to follow through.

Also, how dare you show off in front of the rest of us!

If things aren’t quite so peachy, don’t beat yourself up. A lot of people struggle, and it can be a real drag. But this is the time to figure out how to make things better.

So, what are some of the reasons our plans go off the rails, and what can we do to keep that train a-rolling?

BITING OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW

Whether it’s my weekly To Do list or my goals for an entire year, I often fall short. Does this sound familiar?

It’s great to be ambitious, but it’s equally important to be realistic about how much you can reasonably achieve. It’s hard when you want to do so much. But if you’re constantly missing the deadlines you set for yourself, you’re being counter-productive.

Recalibrate. Take some things off your plate. Reschedule other things for further down the line. You don’t want to make it so you’re barely getting anything done, of course, but you need to be honest with yourself.

Rewrite those resolutions so you’ve got a well-paced timeline that’s rewarding, not disappointing.

SHINY NEW THINGS

Another major obstacle between writers and their goals is the sexy brand new idea that just pops into our heads in the shower or while driving to work.

The impulse is to start working on it right away. However, that would mean abandoning or delaying the projects we already have in progress.

Fight that urge! This is exactly the behavior that leads to a cycle of constantly starting work, but never finishing.

Instead, write down that new idea and then put it aside for later. A million brilliant parbaked ideas are never going to have as much real-world value as a finished piece of writing.

Follow through.

THE INTERNET

Is there anything more useful and yet more of a time suck than the World Wide Web? News, Politics, Pop Culture and Dance Routines? It’s hard to pull yourself away.

Some people even spend days writing a blog when they could be using that time to produce more script pages instead. It’s madness.

Clock your online time one week and see how many hours you’re taking away from your writing. I don’t think you should avoid the web all together (after all, how would you read this?), but you should make sure you’re budgeting your free time in a way that helps you reach your goals.

Everything in moderation.

STOP, DROP, AND ROLL

Take a hard look at the project you’re working on right now. Is it not coming together? Does it feel cliché? Have you lost the passion to see it through?

Maybe it’s time to drop it.

I know this sounds a bit like a contradiction to the “Shiny Things” warning, but I don’t think it is. Rather, it’s another side of the same coin.

It’s one thing to haphazardly jump from new idea to new idea, but it’s another to recognize something that’s not working and no longer worth the effort.

Take a hard look and see if you’re falling behind because the project isn’t what you hoped it would be. Make a measured and thoughtful decision, and see if it’s time to move on.

You can think of it as hitting the pause button and maybe come back to it later. But also maybe not. Either way, it allows you to focus on other projects that still inspire passion.

This is time management. This is good.

CHECKING OUT

Okay, that’s pretty much it for now. A little self-evaluation shouldn’t be a big deal, but it should be part of a normal writer’s routine.

Every few months, check in to see what you want to do versus what you’ve managed to do. And if necessary, modify your goals, your methods, and your time management. Make sure your actions are working for you, not against you.

I know I’ve got some work to do myself.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Invisible Credits

"The Invisible Man" (1933)
There but also not there

As writers, we don’t need some list of titles beneath our names on IMDb for validation.

We do the work for the satisfaction of creation, of sharing ideas with the world, of opening hearts and minds.

Just kidding, we definitely want the credit.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of scenarios where you might find yourself without any public attribution for your hard work. And I’m talking about more than just the specs clogging up your hard drive.

If you’re in this business long enough, sooner or later you’re going to have an Invisible Credit.

What’s an Invisible Credit? Well, I just made up the phrase, but the thing I’m defining is a common one for many writers. You do the work, but your name is nowhere an audience can find it.

I’ve personally been in almost every scenario where this happens, and to be frank… I don’t love it.

NAME OPTIONAL

I’ve had a few feature options and shopping agreements from producers and production companies. Two for actual money. Alas, none of them were subsequently bought and obviously not produced.

No movie, no credit.

SALE AWAY

A friend sold not one, but two spec screenplays. That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself. Unfortunately, neither of them were produced, so their only credit is on the cover pages.

In a related scenario, some writers get open assignments and are hired to write a script for a company or studio. But if that film never gets a green light, the writer’s name never goes up in lights, either.

Harry and the Cloak of Invisibility - "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001)
Like vertical stripes, some cloaks can be quite slimming

UNPLEASANT DEVELOPMENT

You may get hired to develop an executive or producer’s show idea. That usually involves writing pitch documents, series bibles, and maybe even a pilot script. It’s an excellent gig to land, but ever getting the chance to shoot that show is a longshot indeed.

Rhonda Smiley and I were recently in a Bake Off for an animated reimagining of a classic television show. In this context, a Bake Off is when several different writers or writing teams are hired to craft individual pitches with their own takes on an idea. The production company’s favorite moves forward.

In the end, we took silver. And as nice as that sort of feels, only gold has a chance to get to production. It’s something that possibly goes on your resume, but not on IMDb.

CANCEL CULTURE

A couple of friends got a script assignment on a sitcom back in the nineties. But before their episode was filmed, the show was cancelled.

Similarly, I got a gig to write an episode of the animated series, Horseland, with Rhonda Smiley. We did all our drafts and polish and delivered a final script. Then the production company got bought and they cut the series order before our episode went into production.

In both cases, there was a finished script and we were paid in full. But no one would possibly know.

PILOT ERROR

You can be so accomplished that you sell a show idea to a network, have a pilot produced with household names… and then that’s the end of it. If it isn’t picked up to series, it’s generally shelved and never seen by the public.

No credit for you!

Wonder Woman in her Invisible Plane - "Challenge of The Super Friends" (1978)
Every seat is a window seat

PRESCRIPTION FOR ANONYMITY

Oddly enough, you can be a successful, working writer and never see your name on screen.

If you’re a sought-after script doctor, being uncredited is usually part of the job description. With the skill set to come in – often at the last minute – and “fix” a troubled script in or on the verge of production, these writers are given some well-compensated anonymity.

IT’S ALL FOREIGN TO ME

Well, you actually get credit when you write for foreign shows. But if no one you know ever sees them, do they really even exist?

They do, yes. It just doesn’t feel that way sometimes.

THE INCOMPRABLE ALAN SMITHEE

The ultimate Invisible Credit is the invisible credit by choice. Although officially discontinued in 2000, the DGA sanctioned pseudonym, Alan Smithee, was used by directors who felt a film no longer reflected their creative vision and wanted to be disassociated from it.

While I’m not aware of an official WGA replacement name, many screenwriters have similarly disowned their projects and replaced their names with pseudonyms.

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Clearly, the writer’s life is complicated. I guess the common bottom line here – more or less – is production. If something gets produced, you obviously have your best chance to land that sweet, sweet, IMDb credit.

But even if your credit is invisible, that doesn’t mean your work shouldn’t still see the light of day. Keep telling your stories, regardless.

You know… for the satisfaction of creation, of sharing ideas with the world, of opening hearts and minds.

Cloaked Predator - "Predator" (1987)
Uncredited, like Jean Claude Van Damme in Predator

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[THREE CENTS] The Best Christmas Songs

Album cover for "A Very Special Christmas" (1987)
A Very Special Memory

Christmas is barely in the rearview, which means you probably just finished listening to a month and a half straight of Christmas songs. Radio, streaming, the mall and grocery store, you really couldn’t get away from them.

Personally, I didn’t want to. I love almost all of them at least a little, and many quite a lot.

Sure, you can say that Christmas songs are cynical cash grabs. Sometimes a fading star’s last desperate attempt to stay in the spotlight.

Perhaps.

But despite all that, there are still plenty with a special alchemy, regardless of whether they were inspired by a full heart or empty bank account.

There’s really no best Christmas songs, of course. A more appropriate title here would be “favorite” Christmas Songs. Specifically, the favorites of this Gen X kid. Like I mentioned in my Desert Island Discs post, these types of lists are – understandably – incredibly subjective.

We’re all highly influenced by what was playing during our formative years, and our favorites tend to cluster around that particular era. Many songs are wonderful from the start, but once they’re also imbued with nostalgic memories of holidays past, that’s when the magic really starts to happen.

As I began to compile these, I realized that I have too many favorites. Nevertheless, I’ve grudgingly whittled down the list to my top ten. And then a few more.

In no particular order, except also, kind of…

Do They Know it’s Christmas (1984) – Band Aid

This is the tune that started the group charity song onslaught back in the 80s (in that category, I rank it a very close second place to Artists Against Apartheid). This song was created to raise money to combat the famine in Ethiopia, so it’s a tough subject matter with a lot of the lyrics on the melancholy side. However, a glorious line up (named in this particular version of the video) resulted in a wonderful and emotional song with an uplifting chorus.

Wonderful Christmastime (1979) – Paul McCartney

It’s a very popular thing to mock the synthesizer on this track. But let me stop all the Scrooges right there. The synthesizer is a key component in making this song so ebullient and light and full of joy. For Pete’s sake, it’s the holidays. Embrace the synth. The synth is our friend.

Snoopy’s Christmas (1967) – The Royal Guardsmen

Piggybacking on the success of their previous year’s hit, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, the Royal Guardsmen definitely pulled the cash-grab Christmas card. And for that, I’m forever grateful! This is a weird piece of pop, but boy, it charms the crap out of me. When the Red Baron says, “Merry Christmas, my friend!” I get verklempt. Christmas bells indeed.

Christmas Wrapping (1981) – The Waitresses

I used to love this one even more, but it’s become somewhat complicated over the last decade or so since my partner and I tried to option the rights for a movie. That ill-fated process ended up being quite the rollercoaster, culminating in me making a nasty comment about the songwriter in an email that accidentally included him in a “reply all.” It takes a very special bit of music to overcome that fiasco but this one’s got it.

Father Christmas (1977) – The Kinks

Father Christmas is angry, and harsh, and cynical. But also still funny. And it’s a banger that would still be fantastic without seasonal lyrics. Not to mention it’s The Kinks! La la la la love it.

Christmas in Hollis (1987) – Run-DMC

From the first ever A Very Special Christmas album and released at the height of Run-DMC‘s Raising Hell popularity, this is both a fun and funky track from one of the pioneers of rap rock. And as a native of Queens myself (Elmhurst, though, not Hollis), I feel especially connected.

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (1966) – Thurl Ravenscroft

First of all, you’ve gotta love an artist named Thurl Ravenscroft. Though a name like that should probably be famous for a Halloween song instead of a Christmas one. On the other hand, with a lyric like “You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce,” it’s kind of in that wheelhouse anyway. If you find yourself with an odd hankering for Frosted Flakes while listening to this one, it might be because Thurl also was the voice of Tony the Tiger for over 50 years. Isn’t trivia gr-r-reat?!

Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1971) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band

Created as a protest song against the Vietnam War, it’s endured as a timeless holiday classic. With a message of peace and back up vocals from the Harlem Community Choir, it is simultaneously somber and hopeful. It’s also the likely place I first heard the U.K. holiday greeting of “Happy” instead of “Merry.”

Merry Xmas Everybody (1973) – Slade

Full disclosure: I don’t think I had ever even heard this one before the new millennium as it seems to have primarily been a U.K. staple. But thanks to Run Runaway becoming a Stateside hit in 1984 and my friends, Chris and Jay, sparking my Slade fandom, it was destiny that we would finally find one another. I heard it in the wild for the first time on a cruise ship, and thanks to a Greatest Hits acquisition, I can now listen to it anytime without crossing an ocean. The song was covered by Train in 2015, but alas, they’re no Slade.

Jingle Bell Rock (1983) – Daryl Hall & John Oates

Although the most familiar Hall and Oates Jingle Bell Rock has Daryl on lead vocals, two different versions of both the song and video were produced. The second has John on lead vocals, and you should check it out to give him his due. Lest we forget, he sang lead on both She’s Gone and You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling. It’s kind of sad to have the most successful duo of all time feuding right now. Can’t we all just get along, fellas? You’re running roughshod over my childhood.

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Honorable mentions go to Christmas is the Time to Say ‘I Love You’ (1981) – Billy Squier, Little Drummer Boy (1981) – Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, A Holly Jolly Christmas (1964) – Burl Ives, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1986) – Johnny Mathis, Feliz Navidad (1970) – José Feliciano, Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home (1987) – U2, and Last Christmas (1984) – Wham!

I mean, I could go on forever, really, but we’ve all got things to do.

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It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that I actually wrote a Christmas song for my college garage band back in the day. It hasn’t been recorded yet, but who knows what 2024 may bring…

And while you’re here, I can’t stress enough that My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music is NOT a Christmas song. Please write your congressperson and stop this madness.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[ETCETERA] The Most Creative Day of the Year

Not real blood… At least, I don’t think so.

I don’t know if there’s a secret panel somewhere that writes official proclamations, but for my money, Halloween is the most creative day of the year.

My day job is at DreamWorks Animation and its annual Halloween Bash is the perfect display of just how much imagination is surging through the zeitgeist this time of the year.

Looking around at all the festivities on campus, you can’t help but be amazed.

At the center of it all are the costumes. So many costumes!

Some are off-the-rack, but so many others are lovingly handmade. From the very conception of the ideas to the execution, the level of inventiveness, craftsmanship, and presentation is awe-inspiring.

Cosplay for all, really.

The creativity of the holiday goes well beyond that, of course, from intricate yard tableaus, to elaborate decorations, to the classic jack-o-lanterns.

This is where my imagination gets tapped.

For almost a decade now, I’ve created a jack-o-lantern to enter in the studio carving contest. I’ve been lucky enough to pick up a few wins over the years, but a lot depends on the competition.

Spruce and his sparkly little buddy, Tiny Diamond, in vegetable form. Possibly fruit.

Much like with the costumes, there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s a bit like writing, actually.

You start by coming up with a concept. A general idea, like a logline.

Then you begin to map it out. How will you put it together? What are the components? Where do you start?

This is like the outline.

Next is the execution, most closely resembling the scripting stage.

Here you actually follow the map you laid out and generate the artwork itself. As you go, you realize what works and what doesn’t. You modify, streamline, and work through the obstacles.

If you’ve got a contest to enter, it’s like working on a deadline. You finish a version that’s good enough to deliver, and then keep making improvements until your time runs out.

As it happens, it looks like my time has run out here. Hope you had a spookily creative day and that inspiration carries you through the whole pumpkin-spiced season!

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[SPOTLIGHT] CanvasRebel Interview

James Hereth in CanvasRebel Interview
That’s me!

As mentioned in my last post, I recently did an interview for CanvasRebel.

CanvasRebel is an online magazine that highlights stories of people in the arts and small business.

To quote their site, “Our mission is to create a space for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs to be able to learn from their peers through the magic and power of storytelling.

Well my interview is up now, and it goes without saying that it’s filled to the brim with both magic and power.

If you’re new to the blog, or new to me, or new to the Earth, perhaps, you can get a little insight there into who I am and what I do.

Maybe even what I don’t do (math, I definitely don’t do math).

Oh, and there’s pictures too. Some I posed really hard for, so hopefully you appreciate that kind of effort. The piece is called Meet James Hereth, so you’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot that.

Tell ’em, Jim sent you.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Keep Going

I was working on an interview for the CanvasRebel website this week, and the question of resilience came up.

The armless Black Knight kicks King Arthur in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975)
Never mind the odds

Resilience is a key personality trait if you want to be a working screenwriter. A writer at all, actually.

If you try to do creative things professionally, there are going to be quite a few obstacles in your path.

To begin with, a lot of other people want to do the same thing, and the sad truth is that there are only so many jobs. It’s probably not quite as competitive as trying to be an actor or a rock star, but I bet it’s close.

Now, I don’t want to discourage you if you’re just starting out, but you’re going to need to be strong.

I’ve been called stubborn. Like it’s a bad thing (okay, it can be a bad thing). But in this business, stubbornness, or tenacity, is a key characteristic that will give you your best chance for success.

There are going to be times when you get ghosted, when you get passed over, when you get rejected. These are unfortunate, but common experiences.

My most simplistic advice (and yet simultaneously super wise) is to just keep going.

Bearded Forrest keeps on running in "Forrest Gump" (1994)
Run, writer, run

If you take a really big hit, you shouldn’t pretend it didn’t happen and pop right back up. You can stay down for a little while, maybe even wallow for a bit. Eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. It might even be a good idea to take some time away from writing so you can clear your head.

But before too long, you’ll need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps (or if you’re not wearing boots, then straps for whatever footwear you happen to be in). And then…

Just. Keep. Going.

I’ve said this before, but the amount of times you get knocked down doesn’t matter, as long as you keep getting up. You can’t have failed if you’re still trying.

Anyway, just wanted to encourage you and say you’re not alone in experiencing roadblocks and letdowns. I’ve experienced plenty myself. And will no doubt experience more. But that’s okay.

Just talking about this has been good for me personally. I feel just a bit invigorated. Hopefully you do as well.

Let’s keep going.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Chauffeur to the Stars

When you first start out in the entertainment industry, you quickly discover that the most prevalent entry-level opportunities are as an Assistant or Production Assistant (aka P.A.).

Jon Voight and Graham Greene in the HBO TV Movie, "The Last of His Tribe" (1992)
Both of these guys rode shotgun in my Mazda Protegé

If you’re a P.A. on lower-budgeted projects, like I was, you’re more than likely to find yourself with responsibilities that far outweigh your position. Or salary.

One of those is driving name-brand actors from one place to another.

I don’t know what compels producers and production managers to have the twenty-something kids on the crew with the least experience (and probably the crappiest cars) chauffeur the onscreen talent. But that’s exactly what happens.

Maybe in the era of Uber and Lyft, it doesn’t seem so odd to have a celebrity plop themselves down in some rando’s car, but it sure felt that way when I was behind the wheel.

If you’re a P.A. picking up an actor for the first time, my simplest advice is to not be star struck. You’re supposed to treat these people with respect, but also like a fellow crew member. Be professional. Don’t ask for an autograph, or request a selfie, or take them to your high school reunion (as legendary as that might be).

Other than that, just “read the room,” and let them set the tone with conversation or silence.

Here are a few of the notable riders from my first couple of years in town…

THE LAST OF HIS TRIBE

This TV movie was a historical drama for HBO.

CFI - Consolidated Film Industries in Hollywood, CA
When films were actually film

I started out as an Office P.A. This meant working out of the production office, as opposed to on set. Which was useful in this case as I lived in Los Angeles and the set was up north in Sonora.

Part of my job was to actually pick up the film shot that day from the airport and drive it to the lab, CFI, where it was processed and transferred to tape dailies overnight.

When production moved down to Los Angeles, I became a set P.A. (Key Set P.A., according to the Crew List, thank you very much.). This is when I started getting driving assignments for something other than celluloid.

For a few weeks, I picked up Graham Greene from the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood and drove him to wherever the set was that day. I had first seen him just a few years earlier in Dances With Wolves, where he nabbed an Academy Award nomination, so I was rather intimidated.

When we met, my first impression was that he was gruff and standoffish. But after getting to know him better, I realized he was just kind of a quiet, nice guy. A particularly bad day for me in the very near future illustrated just how nice.

That morning, I got lost on the way to set. We were going to the same location we had for several days, so I was mentally on autopilot. But something threw me slightly off track and before I knew it, I took the wrong exit and headed on a loop of confusion trying to get myself back on course.

Partial Call Sheet for the HBO TV Movie, "The Last of His Tribe" (1992)
Revised Call Sheet means 20 more minutes of sleep

In the meantime, Graham’s call time came and went. As I panicked, palms sweating, and explained what what happening, Graham took it all in stride. He calmly talked me off the ledge and said that if anyone got upset, he’d tell them we were late because he made me stop for a latte.

A small gesture of grace that I’ll never forget.

In addition to my regular drives for Graham, I also piloted a one-off trip for Graham’s co-star, Jon Voight, and that Midnight Cowboy ended up generating a bit of a hard-rocking vignette.

Jon was also an Academy Award nominee, not to mention winner, so his resume was as imposing as his frame. As with other high profile passengers, I typically kept the radio off, but I did have an ejected cassette sticking out of the tape deck.

Guns N' Roses - Use your Illusion Cassette Tape (1991)
Jon Voight’s Favorite

During the ride – which I think consisted of going from one airport to another – Jon noticed the tape and asked what it was. I told him it was Use Your Illusion from Guns N’ Roses that had just come out. I tried to explain that they were kind of intense and I didn’t think he’d really like it too mu– CLICK.

Mid-explanation, he pushed the tape into the deck and it started to play.

I don’t know that it was necessarily a full minute of Axl Rose loudly screeching obscenities, but it sure felt like it in my head. After what seemed like an eternity, Jon hit the eject button and said, “I think that’s enough of that.”

Not sure if the rest of the ride was in silence, but I can’t remember another thing that happened. Perhaps this was the moment that drove him to become a hard right lunatic.

FIRE IN THE DARK

This was another TV Movie, though for CBS.

What I remember most about driving Jean Stapleton is that she lived in a gorgeous house in lush, hilly Bel Air.

She also used my cupholder for her morning tea.

Olympia Dukakis, Joan Leslie, Jean Stapleton, and Amzie Strickland in the CBS TV Movie "Fire in the Dark" (1991)
Some more of the Mazda passenger posse

On one ride to set, the subject of All in the Family residuals came up. How this happened, I can’t even remember. Regardless, what does stick in my head all these years later was that she said she took a buyout instead, but had no regrets.

With a house like that, what was there to regret?

Another charming senior I chauffeured was character actress, Amzie Strickland (far right in the picture above). She was the sweetest and even gifted me a basket of tomatoes she’d picked from her yard.

Perhaps something to consider next time, Jon Voight?

My shortest drive may have been for former Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner. Her route from one set to another couldn’t have been more than a few blocks.

For some reason, the fact that she lived in Oregon at some point in her life came up. I mentioned that one of my college roommates was from Grant’s Pass, so I think we made a real connection.

The last actor I remember driving was Edward Herrmann. One of two Lost Boys vampires I’ve now met in real life.

Ray Wise, Olympia Dukakis, Edward Herrmann, Lindsay Wagner, and Paul Scherrer in the CBS TV Movie "Fire in the Dark" (1991)
Featuring the dads of Laura Palmer and the Lost Boys

Oh, sorry. Spoiler alert if you haven’t gotten around to seeing that movie from 1987.

Anyway, Edward had wrapped shooting, but the production didn’t want to officially release him until they checked the dailies from the day before. Nevertheless, I was tasked with driving him to the airport, but would turn around if he was needed for reshoots.

To let me know this in 1991, the Production Coordinator would give me a hit on my beeper (like a doctor… or drug dealer).

During the ride, I explained how this was all going to work. Edward seemed very interested in the process and even asked to see my beeper. When I handed it to him, though, he rolled down the passenger window and pretended to throw it out onto the street.

Seems he was looking forward to going home.

Anyway, happy endings for all involved as the dailies were good and there was no 911 to head back to set. Edward was released on his own recognizance.

Anyway, if you’re thinking of moving to Los Angeles and getting started in the business, make sure your license is up-to-date and all the Taco Bell wrappers have been cleaned off the car floor.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Write What you Have

"El Mariachi" (1992)
Just add a bus and maybe you’ve got something

There’s the old adage that you should “write what you know.”

While there’s plenty to be said for that, there are also plenty of instances when you should write what you have.

When it comes to production – especially your own production – how can you make the most of what’s around?

Instead of just writing without restraint, consider channeling your creativity to maximize production value and make your project stand out from the rest.

STUDENT LIFE

As a film student, this perspective is essential. There are no big budgets. There are no big stars. You aren’t likely to pull off a story set in the rings of Jupiter or a shire in Middle Earth. So you’re forced to consider what you have on hand.

Brainstorm the project from that perspective. Do you have access to a cool apartment with a fire escape? A rooftop overlooking the city? An abandoned movie theater?

These simple things can elevate your project and make it special.

One of the earliest projects I worked on at school was essentially a chase through New York City. Led by director, Mark Brian Smith, we thought about what places we knew of that looked cool. Like bridges, outdoor markets, and unique architecture. We roamed the city, shooting in front of one graphic background after another, and making a simple concept into something a little more.

In another film, a friend’s pet iguana was written into the story as a rare poisonous reptile. He made for an unexpected murder weapon and didn’t even demand his own dressing room.

SHORT CIRCUIT

This isn’t limited to students, of course. The same applies to any project.

Josh Lewkowicz, a filmmaker friend with bicoastal collaborators and a drone, worked on the short, Good Friend Man.

"Good Friend Man" (2017)
Who needs a helicopter when you’ve got a professional-grade drone?

It was conceived to take advantage of both the cross-country locations and the drone’s capabilities. This allowed the creative team to design a film that would highlight these special elements, as opposed to just trying to incorporate them into an unrelated idea after the fact.

Identify the unique, special things that can enhance your production and integrate them from the start.

LIMITED LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

In the golden age of the limited location feature, you want to focus on your assets, not your shortcomings.

Robert Rodriguez is the patron saint, and El Mariachi the poster child, for making the most of what you’ve got. As legend has it, Rodriguez wrote the script for that movie knowing he had access to a ranch, two bars, and a bus. And although it was critical to write a compelling narrative and shoot and edit with a creative eye, those little extras raised the bar.

My director friend, Charles Unger, took that recipe to heart for his own indie. With access to the DGA Building in Hollywood, a fashion company in Downtown LA, and a Buick Skylark convertible, he wrote and directed his feature debut, Mr. Lucke.

GETTING SERIES-OUS

This perspective can serve as a valuable asset while writing for a series as well. You can take some pressure off a producer (and their budget) by gauging what kinds of special things are already at the production’s disposal.

Our home base and primary shooting location for Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book, was a former coffee plantation. While we had built recurring sets, the property had a lot more places to find inspiration. And at little to no extra cost.

Walking the grounds revealed many great opportunities to bring something special to our show. There were picturesque cliffs, valleys, abandoned buildings, and even a garbage dump.

Episode ideas were inspired by those untapped locations and features, making the most of what was available at the earliest stage and boosting their potential.

ANIMATION MAXIMIZATION

I’ve talked about this before, but when you’re working on an animated show, you can’t just write anything that comes to mind.


Kuu Kuu Harajuku’s season 1 video game monster returns in season 3 to wreak havoc in the “real world”

I mean, you can of course, but even if fantastical locations and wall-to-wall special effects are cheaper in animation than in live action, that doesn’t mean they’re actually cheap.

It pays to look through the show’s previous episodes and reach out to the production to find out what existing sets and characters have already been designed, but potentially underutilized.

Let your scripts spring from there, focusing your creativity on those assets and elevating what the production has.

This can make you an extremely valuable part of the team and maybe a more desirable hire in future productions.

BIG FINISH

Ultimately, I encourage creatives to take inventory – literally – and channel their imaginations through their existing resources.

While some might believe that art can’t be restrained, writing with intention and purpose is critical if you want to be a professional. Use everything you have to make your projects memorable.

This is another place where the craft of writing comes in. And craft is every bit as valuable as art. Practice it. Develop it. And then make the most of what you’ve got.

Filmically speaking.

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Cover of the graphic novel, "Blowback" (2021)

Jim Hereth‘s latest project is his debut action/adventure graphic novel, Blowback, nominated for Best Original Graphic Novel and winner of Fan Favorite Villain at the Ringo Awards. Available now in digital and paperback editions at Amazon.

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