Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Involvement in TEN the Movie: a Love Story

While I was at Kripalu Yoga Center this August, my friends Michael J. Epstein and Sophia Cacciola sent me an email telling me they were considering launching a Kickstarter (their first, though they've recorded and released tons of albums of music). Michael had mentioned before that he was a big fan of B movies, and he had always dreamed of one day trying his hand at writing and directing a feature film. "I wouldn't want to do it unless I could do it right though," he'd said. "I'd want to pay everyone at least a little bit, and I'd only want to work with brilliant people." 

Before they launched their Kickstarter, they asked a handful of artists they'd worked with before if we would be involved. The email I received at Kripalu asked, basically, if I would be interested and available to act in their film in December if they made their Kickstarter goal. Michael, Sophia, Karin Webb, Rachel Leah Blumenthal, Susannah Plaster and I all blocked out a nine-day period in December when we could be available. The pay promised was a modest $500. Enough to help us pay our rent during that time, but definitely not much for the amount of time or work involved. Of course, money was not the reason any of us said yes. The payment was simply practical. It made it possible for us, full-time artists and/or freelancers, to do the work necessary to make the film.

I was 
on top of a mountain lost in yogaland about twelve hours a day at that point, but I always loved making art with Michael and Sophia, so I said "Sure. If you raise the money, I'll be there." I wasn't sure they'd make their goal, and didn't give it all that much thought until I returned to Boston in September. Two weeks after I settled back in, they passed their goal. We were making a feature film, and we had less than three months to come up with a full cast, crew, location, props, and a script. 

I knew they were working with Sarah Wait Zarenek already to write the script, but since I am, by trade and profession, a writer, I let them know that I'd be happy to offer any assistance I could in the writing process. "I'm especially good at character and dialogue," I told them, which is true. I'm not much on plots, but for whatever reason, character and dialogue have always come easy to me.

At first, they were a bit cagey. "Mike's got the last word," said Sophia. MJE said he would "accept input at some point," but warned me himself that he was a "control freak." I told them that control freaks are my favorite type of people to work with.

A couple of days later Sophia asked if I'd like to come over and go through what they had of the script. I came over on a Tuesday night after a friend's book release party at about 8:30PM. We started going through the dialogue, and what was at first somewhat cautious proffering soon became all of us laughing hysterically as we argued over synonyms and alliteration and followed wild tangents about identity and the Self. The next thing I knew, it was 7AM, and we'd gotten through about 2/3rds of the script. "I'm adding your name as a co-writer," said Michael. "Can you come back on Friday?"

I would come over three more times over the next two months, and we would eat pumpkin noodles, vegan chocolate chip cookies, and write until the wee hours. It was one of the most fun writing experiences of my life, and a perfect collaboration. They had already mapped out the plot and the themes, so I could come in and do what I love the most -- give the characters voices. 

Simultaneously, Michael and Sophia were busy casting the film and securing the location, an old Gatsby-esque beach mansion in Rhode Island which we began referring to as the TEN Mansion. 

It didn't hit me that it was actually happening until I arrived in a car with Karin Webb, Leah Principe, and Porcelain Dalya on Thursday, December 6th at the TEN Mansion. As I walked through the 15+ bedroom home and realized I was going to be living there for the next eight days creating a movie I helped to write with artists I loved and respected, I couldn't stop muttering, "I can't believe this is my life." 

This is not the place for me to go into details about TEN Mansion anecdotes. That will come after the movie's released -- then the memories will have some context for other people. (For now, you can see a ton of interviews, recipes, memories, and lip-synching videos from our experience at the official TEN the Movie website.) Suffice it to say, it was literally the hardest thing I've ever done. The whole cast and crew was on their feet and working between 20-22 hours a day. We took catnaps. We ate standing up in the kitchen. We unwound at 7AM with hot toddies and exhausted laughter. As I write this from my parents' house in Indianapolis where I'm visiting for Christmas, I have a nasty cold that I came down with a couple days after I got back. But it was more than worth it. We filmed a movie I'm proud of in ten days (there was an extra day on each end not filmed at the mansion). It was the hardest thing I've ever done, but also one of the most deeply rewarding experiences of my life. 

Here's a blog MJE wrote about the cost breakdown of the film's production. While the final cost of the movie is nothing compared to what studios spend, I think the finished product will look and feel like a much higher budget endeavor. That's because this project was funded more by love than by money. Every single person believed in the dream, and worked absurdly long and hard hours for very little compensation to make it happen. People exhibited superhuman stamina and abilities -- talents and skills came out of nowhere when they were needed. It was the artistic version of those moms who lift Subarus off their infants. 

We all wanted to make this happen. When people would inevitably break down in tears because of sheer physical exhaustion, the community gathered around to support them and help them through. No one lashed out at others in their moments of break down. The attitude was always, "How do I get through this rough part to make this project happen as best I can?" It was the most inspiring thing I've ever seen. It was what can happen when a group of brilliant people believe in something enough to put its realization before their individual egos. A testament to the creative spirit and to The Boston Collectivist Movement.

I fell in love with the cast, crew and the process of creating TEN. It's a part of me, and I'm a part of it. I will always be connected to it, and I couldn't be happier. And this is just the beginning. Now that MJE is editing the film and Catherine Capozzi is working on the score, I'm beginning work on the novel version of the film. Yes, you read that right. I'm spending the rest of my winter writing TEN, the novel! It's going to be released alongside the film as a supplement, but also as a stand-alone work. The story will be the same, but it will go into the themes, characters, background, and plot in more depth. I'm so excited to be able to write this and offer it along with the film. I am one lucky human being.

TEN is going to have a life of its own, and I can't wait to watch it grow. I feel like it's a child our entire Collectivist community had and is raising together.

I'll be blogging here about the novel-writing process and other TEN-related happenings. You can also check the official website ( for other updates. We will never stop.

Thank you, beautiful community. Thank you. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Boston Collectivist Movement

I'm an artist living in Boston, Massachusetts. For the past four years, I've been lucky enough to work with some of this city's most brilliant creators. I've written books, performed poetry, recorded albums of folk and hip-hop, done Vaudeville, drag, and improv, modeled for photographers and painters, organized and/or performed in countless variety shows, and am now starring in a feature film I helped to write.

All of these projects fall under the misleading blanket term, "independent art." The irony is that so-called "independent art" is more dependent on (and integral to) its community than any mainstream media. Mainstream media is funded by independently wealthy institutions such as record labels or publishing houses. Independent art, or as we're calling it, Collectivist art, is sustained by its value within its community.

If you'd asked me fifteen years ago if I thought any of these projects would be possible without some serious mainstream financial backing, I would have answered with a gloomy laugh of resignation. But over the past fifteen years, the internet happened and the stock market crashed, and suddenly we're not so sure we need or want any big institutions telling us how we should and can make art. 

So we started making it any way we could. We connected with other people who were passionate and brilliant and crazy enough to stay up all night memorizing The Ballad of Reading Gaol or gluing glitter onto pig-masks or driving back from a show two states away when they had work the next morning. Everyone had day-jobs or were in grad school or were freelance web-developers or graphic designers or were on unemployment. We were all tired all the time, but we were making the art that we wanted to make, and slowly but surely, we were finding people who wanted to read/listen to/look at that art. 

Somewhere in our mid-twenties, or late-twenties, or early-thirties, we all realized that we needed to redefine what we meant by the word "success." When we thought success meant a million-dollar record deal and an episode of Cribs, we were miserable. When we decided success meant, "I create work I care about with people I love and respect, and it's routinely received by an audience that appreciates it," we realized we were the happiest people in the world. 

So we made. And we realized as we continued to connect with other crazy, brilliant creators that so much more was possible through working with one another than locking ourselves in our rooms watching Cribs and pounding out yet another solipsistic manifesto. I know nothing about photoshop, but Caleb does. Jojo plays the ukulele and draws Mucha-esque portraits. Michael and Sophia can write a theme song to anything, and they have a recording studio in their house. Eric can whip up a Mayan Doomsday mask on a moment's notice out of dental floss and old tires. Karin can play any character. Any. Character. If someone needs a snappy bit of dialogue or a pantoum based on Elton John's Rocketman, they call me.

Most of our work for each other is done for free, or for very little money. If we were making more money off our art, we would pay more, and on the rare, unpredictable occasions when one of our projects does turn out to be financially lucrative, we share the wealth as best we can.

But money is simply a useful cultural metaphor for value, and the value we derive from working with one another is not primarily financial. Again, it's the experience of creating work that moves us with people who share the same vision, and the luxury of being able to put that work into the world and watch it move others. 

Cooperative collaboration between artists is not a new phenomenon, but during the mid-to-late twentieth century, when hyper-consumerist capitalism was slapping its dick over everything in America, artists suddenly got the idea that in order to call themselves Artists, they needed to make a shit-ton of money off their art, like The Beatles or Andy Warhol. Making art without serious (and ultimately spurious) financial backing was considered futile at best and amateurish at worst, and this served to isolate and disempower unfunded artists. But the model of one-to-many wealth came crashing down with the one-to-many model of the media. The type of wealth and fame amassed by The Beatles and Andy Warhol was an anomalous symptom of the way media and money worked at that particular moment in history.

Kickstarter is a concomitant financial manifestation of community-driven Collectivist art. The modern Collectivist artist is not a gallon of homogenized, hormoned milk shipped from some distant factory farm. She is a juicy Heirloom tomato nestled in a CSA box. She takes on the flavor of the soil she grows in, and nourishes the community that planted and sustained her. 

The most interesting thing about the current highlighting of collaborative, community-supported art is it aligns with a shift away from faith in the notion of the individual author in a larger cultural context. With Wikipedia, blog sharing, Tumblr, and Facebook, the old belief that an individual could own their ideas is dissolving. We're seeing how interrelated, and interdependent, and derivative we really are. Unbound by of the shackles of "originality," we're free to simply create. 

I've been invited into this weird, wonderful world of Collectivist art where we don't focus on who wrote which part of what song or whose fishnets those are. We step in where we can contribute, and are happy to step back and watch when it serves the art. Our very identities are fluid and intentionally donned to fulfill certain roles within our artistic community. Sometimes it feels like we've all melted together and are each merely embodied aspects of the work. 

That's okay. Better, even. I started making art at six because I felt lonely and isolated in my skin. I would rather be a part of something bigger than me than be myself alone.