The Full Story
First of all, the fact that you are reading this means you are somehow interested in the person beyond the work, so thanks for your interest!
Ok, here goes. In a nutshell, I was born in New York City to communist parents – they were public school teachers by professional identification – and spent my early years in a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan called Washington Heights. It was predominantly Dominican and a tough neighborhood, and the world outside our apartment couldn’t have been much different than the intellectual-radical-leftist, folk singing and chess-playing world inside our apartment. My parents weren’t overly protective, either, so I spent a fair amount of time trying to hang out in the streets of the neighborhood. It was a loving household, but there’s no doubt we didn’t fit in. By ‘we’, I mean my mom, Sue, my dad, Paul, and my two brothers and one sister, Josh, Sam, and Amy.
Just as break dancing (and crack cocaine) was storming through Washington Heights in the early 80’s, we picked up and moved to a rural farm town in South East Michigan called Whiteford. I’ve often thought that there was a really good reason it wasn’t called, say, ‘Blackford’. Or ‘Hispanicford’. ‘Whiteford’ it was called, and Whiteford it was. I don’t think it shows up on a map – at least it didn’t then – which was something deeply troubling to my young New-York-centric brain. It was one mile from the border of Ohio, and the closest metropolis was Toledo. In political terms, you might say I moved from one of the bluest of the blue to the reddest of the red places America has to offer. It might seem a strange move unless you knew 1) My mom was from there, and 2) my father had a debilitating stroke that left him wheelchair bound and generally incapacitated. New York City had become untenable, and Michigan was the only place my Mom could think of to go. Again, it was a loving – if this time rural – household, but there was no doubt we didn’t fit in. My sister Amy developed big poofy hair, though, and Sam and I got mullets and threw on acid washed jeans and tried to make the best of it. Josh was 13 years older than me, and already off honing his career as a comic performer in Boston, by the way, so he didn’t make the transition. Although I don’t think I’ll ever forget his profound shock and terror (and my mom’s sense of ironic amusement at his shock and terror) when he came to visit and realized 1) he didn’t have a driver’s license, and 2) we lived on a dirt road with no neighbors (let alone convenience stores) for miles. I was the oldest of ’round two’, and roughly 2 – years older than Amy, who was 2 – years older than Sam. Me, Amy, and Sam all making a go of it in rural Michigan with my Mom. My dad passed away soon after we moved there.
I went to a high school in Michigan that had 44 kids in my class, and it was a public school. That’s just how many kids there were in the district. We were a ‘Class D’ school in a ranking system that went from Class A (the biggest schools) to Class D (the smallest). Everyone knew everyone, and had for what seemed like generations. Into that pranced an atheistic-jewish(ish), intellectually confrontational city kid. I wound up, somehow, as the captain of the football team, president of the Student Body, and was even (out of sympathy, perhaps) voted ‘most athletic’ by my class. They were wonderfully and surprisingly accepting, even if I never really was accepted.
I always was a good student – my parents were teachers, after all – and eventually went to Michigan State University. I went there because my mom thought it was the ‘people’s university’ and not like those ‘snobs’ at the hoity-toity University of Michigan.
My mom died when I was 18 and just getting started with college, something that changed my life in every way you could imagine. First, both of my parents were passed away, but I was 18 so legally on my own. This enhanced my sense that I didn’t fit in – in this case with any of the other kids who ‘had live parents’ – which was pretty large proportion of the kids I interacted with. Second, I went out to stay in San Francisco with my brother Josh for the summer. I thought I was crazy at the time, and he convinced me that I wasn’t crazy at all. He told me that it was just that I was an artist, and I had to figure out some way to express myself. It was the first time that being an artist had really occurred to me, and the notion that I could take what I had perceived as a negative (being an outsider) and turn it in to a positive (being an artist), whether I had any hope of succeeding or not, helped motivate me and keep me focused through some tough times. Third, Amy and Sam were adopted by Margaret Zaidman. Margaret was my mom’s best friend in New York. To this day I almost can’t say or think the words ‘Margaret Zaidman’ without involuntarily breathing some sort of a sigh and thinking some version of, ‘man, she really saved our ass’. She’s an angel. They should erect statues. Seriously. Anyhow, the whole process brought my siblings and I incredibly close together, and brought my family ‘roots’ (such as they were) back to New York City.
My degree was in Interpersonal Communications. You might wonder what the hell that is, and maybe even scoff that it’ll be pretty useless in terms of getting a job. Well, you’d be right. I studied Interpersonal Com because I was interested in lying, manipulation, and what the reasons were we ever opened our mouths and said anything in the first place. Also, if you were suspicious everything was bullshit – and I was – it didn’t really make any difference if what you studied had any practical application or not. For three years I was a research assistant for a Psychology professor, and we watched tapes of people interacting and doing tasks with the sound turned off. My job was to code the facial expressions of the people in the videos for ‘communicated’ or ‘truly experienced’ emotions. What I learned was that communication is hard, and most of what we say isn’t through words. Also, almost despite myself, I learned I like and am fascinated by people and what makes us human. I graduated from college Summa Cum Laude and from the Honors College. I would have been valedictorian of my class if they did such things at the Communications College at MSU. All of which – surprise! – left me pretty much un-hirable for anything you might call a ‘Job’.
Jobs. Somehow, despite myself, I was surprised I couldn’t get one. We all gotta work, though, and I was left with almost no choice but to make things myself. I collaborated on creating a great play called THE MOISTURE SEEKERS with my brother that first summer I spent with him. Eventually, under a new name (‘Red Diaper Baby’) it would play in New York at a prestigious off-Broadway theater called Second Stage and be included in an anthology of the best One Man Shows of the 90’s. Then I collaborated on another piece with Josh called PUMPING COPY, then another play with a talented local perform named Christina Robbins called THE FACE BY THE DOOR. All were comedies, and all were deem-able as successes. They were produced (no small feat), audiences enjoyed them, I was proud of my work. And, of course, I was making no money. It was theater.
To support myself I was working as a free-lance production assistant on films (mixed in with some office temp work). Everyone on film sets seemed vaguely crazy and un-hirable in their own way – and yet here they were, working! Pretty quickly I felt like I had finally found my ‘tribe’. I loved being on sets, loved the crazy people who worked on them – and couldn’t believe how much I loved it when we somehow made something interesting. I didn’t fall for film until late, but when I fell, I fell hard.
First, I became obsessed with moving up on crews. I was tired of being a PA and wanted to be a 2nd AD, so I moved to LA. Then I wanted to be a first AD. Then I wanted to work on features. Then I wanted to write, so I wrote a screenplay. Then just writing wasn’t satisfying, I wanted to actually tell the story to people in the world, so I decided I had to be a director. It all came to a head when I submitted a screenplay to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, and they called me in for a meeting. I thought it was the greatest meeting I had ever had. They laughed at my jokes and listened to my thoughts on the creative process. I wanted so badly for it to work out and to be accepted as a creative success, that I threw a party for all my friends and told them I had gotten in. Of course, the following Monday they called me and told me it hadn’t worked out, and I was so embarrassed that I called my brother in San Francisco and told him that we had to make a movie right away or I’d never be able to show my face in public again.
He agreed, and the rejection turned out to be in the impetus for me to move back up to San Francisco to make HAIKU TUNNEL. At this point I had never made a short film (let alone a feature), and I hadn’t gone to film school. Most films by first-time directors get funded because there are famous actors in it, and the most famous person in Haiku Tunnel was Josh. As Josh said at the time, ‘I’m not even famous in our family, and even if I was we don’t have any money’. Needless to say, it was tough to raise money for the project, but when we finally did, making it was tumultuous, stressful, and an absolute blast. We submitted a cut to Sundance three weeks after we finished shooting, and took our one print of the film as our carry-on when we flew to Utah. Showing the film, the deal with Sony Classics, getting a manager and an agent- it all happened in sort of a whirlwind.
The film came out September 11th, 2001. A friend told me that it was the worst day to release a film in America since Pearl Harbor was attacked. I’m from NY, and trust me, I know how much of an understatement it is to say it wasn’t the most important thing happening that day. I will always remember the bittersweet feeling of coming back from the press tour with Josh on September 10th, hugging him at the airport, and saying tomorrow is going to be a day that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.
Still, I’m extremely proud of the film and grateful to the people who have watched it and tracked me down to tell me how much it meant to them. Truly, ThanksThanksThanks! As with almost everything I’ve done I’m most happy and surprised by how, through some mystical transference, the spirit we were after with the story somehow came across in the finished film.
The rest is more-or-less covered in my professional bio, and going in to all the twists and turns would take (as they say) ‘all day’. Suffice to say I’ve had about the farthest thing from a linear career that is possible. I’ve spent my adult life compulsively moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York, back to SF, back to NY, etc. etc. I somehow managed to make my second film, THE BEST THIEF IN THE WORLD, in New York. It played in competition at Sundance and was distributed by Showtime Independent Films. I have written scripts for hire, started and secured funding for production companies, and helped to make some interesting films. My career has been idiosyncratic enough to make me almost completely unrepresentable by Hollywood agent types because they don’t know what category to put me in. That’s fine by me. It may be true that I still don’t fit in – But hey, I’ve ridden horses in the mountains of Utah with Robert Redford! It can’t be all that bad, right?!
As of this writing, I live in Berkeley, CA with my wife, Keturah Ashfield, and two children amidst an elaborate composting and recycling system Ket has set up. I wake up every day and try to write and make movies. Currently I’m working on 2 project that I believe to be THE MOST EXCITING PROJECTS EVER!!! The first is a narrative comedy called LOVE & TAXES; I’m making it with my frequent collaborator, dear friend, and inspiring brother, Josh. We’re thinking of it as a kind of love story for our times – a pro-tax romantic comedy – and kind of a follow up to Haiku Tunnel. The second is called SAVING CAPITALISM, a feature doc with Robert Reich that tries to capture the bigger tory behind the anti-establishment energy in these troubled economic times. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!