I lived another life years ago, in another sort of Neverland — the business we call show, as Hedwig would say. I was one among many, angling for a spot in the writers’ room while biding time as an office p.a. My first job was on “Firefly,” at 20th Century Fox. And I’m not gonna lie, being there was a little bit of magic.
The Lot isn’t as expansive as it once used to be, nor was it when I was there. It was still a treat, though. I used to love taking the long way back to the office after delivering scripts, smoking cigarettes, screeching around corners & up and down the alleyways on the golf cart, sneaking peeks into the open stage doors and empty sets, massive caverns of make-believe. I felt a part of something special, part of an art form that’s touched me deeply throughout my life, in varied and profound ways. It was a film, after all, that helped me, at nine years old, to cry for my Mother after she died.
“Firefly’s” production office was in Building 89, our stages 14, 15, and 16, “Minority Report’s” before ours. New York Street was just around the corner. Ours was a ragtag little group, former “Buffy” folx, mostly. One crew among many in the building, printed signs on paper taped to the walls, pointing this way and that, all of the hallways the same in design, painted the same shade of beige, plentiful accents of scuff throughout, a byproduct of the transitory nature of the business we call show, as Hedwig would say.
I carried a bundle of scripts in my arms as I walked down to the stage that day, on my way to deliver yet another set of pages, a Lexus SUV drove slowly my way. The window rolled down, I instinctively looked. Then I shouted my profane exclaim, loud enough for him to hear, no doubt. My heart beat hard in my chest as I rushed to the finish and back to the office. And there was his car, parked in a spot next to Building 89, right at the door, the one that sat empty for months until then — “Reserved for Mr. Sawyer” on a well-made sign from the shop posted on the wall above. Union work, clearly.
I sped Deborah home that night, my thoughts racing as fast as her engine, high on adrenaline. I made the right onto Echo Park with my plan in hand and told my girlfriend, Jane, as soon as I walked in our door — who I had seen, that I thought it was fate, and that I’d write him a letter. The next morning it was folded in thirds and tucked it into the comp book I took to work every day. But he didn’t come back that day. Or the next. Or the day after that. I thought maybe he wouldn’t ever come back. Until about a week later, in the kitchen crunching chips in my sandwich when there out the window — another Lexus in his spot. I tore down the hallway and back to my desk, pulled the letter out of my book, tucked it into my pocket and went outside to smoke on the loading dock. I lit it as chill as I could and took the first drag, making my way closer as the stick began to shrink, slow and casual. Then closer as my heart beat hard and fast. And then in one movement I lifted the wiper, slipped the letter under it, stomped out my cigarette and slipped back in the door.
The office was quiet that evening, completely wound down from the day. It was just my immediate boss and I in the bullpen when Michael Kahn walked in. He was the little old man who stole candy from our office kitchen on the daily. He’s also an Academy Award winning film editor who still cuts on Moviola. “Steve read your letter. He was very moved and he asked me to let you know that he’d like to shake your hand the next time he’s here.”
This is what I wrote, in part:
“I was nine years old, trying to grieve the death of my mother when E. T. was released in 1982. It was a situation I didn’t understand, and as a result, I withdrew into an emotional shell, unable to express the simplest feelings, laughing or even crying. I pushed everyone away, allowing no one into my world when I was taken to see E.T. It touched me in a way that is difficult to put into words. You brought me into Elliot’s world where I was able to relate to him in the simplest and most profound way, child to child, and as a result, was able to cry for my mother for the first time in over a year.
Looking back, I realize this experience stands out as being the sole influence to my passion for film making. I believe that movies should not only entertain, but should reach out to the audience, drawing them in and connecting them emotionally. This is what creates profound experiences and I believe it is what the medium is capable of.
I look forward to the day when I can thank you in person and in a perfect world, have the opportunity to be a part of your film making process. Until then, thanks for the inspiration.”
I came upon this question as I perused my feed last night — “What do you do when you are aware of amazing opportunities which you, through ignorance or negligence, have let go by? What is the proper damage control?”
I immediately thought of my close encounter with greatness. I never did get to shake his hand. For innocuous reasons, really; timing, chance, details. But I kicked myself for it for years afterward — for being so stupid, so enveloped in fear, for not marching down the hallway to knock on their door to claim my prize, a Hollywood dream made of mist. It took me ten years to let it go. It was January 1, 2012. On the 170 freeway in Los Angeles, cutting across from the 101 to the 5 North and leaving “home” for the first time, heading north. To Berkeley. With each mile I felt a weight begin to lift from my shoulders, the weight of the wreckage of my past, the prison of my given name. Just like that, all of the stumbles and falls, my life’s work of fuck-ups, weren’t fuck-ups anymore and they suddenly made sense. Because all of them led me to that moment. A moment that would change the course of my life forever.