Posted on January 13, 2019 - by writerman
Today I got a bill for $460.46 from Good Samaritan Hospital. This is the ninth bill we’ve paid to the hospital, ER docs, imagining centers and surgeons since my wife sliced into her finger with a bread knife over a year ago. And we have pretty good health insurance.
I grew up in a place where medicine is free, but now I live in California. Since we moved here, people from back home always ask us about healthcare. How much does insurance cost? Do you have to pay every time to go to the doctor? Will America ever join the other 96% of developed nations that provide universal healthcare? Why don’t you just move back home already? (sorry, mom)
It’s complicated but let me try to break it down for you.
Spoiler alert: I am not going to try to explain how the whole system works or the differences between HMO and PPO or on and off-exchange plans or the Affordable Care Act or any of that. We don’t have time for all of that. I’m just going to share the details on what it cost me and my little family to get health insurance and go see the doctor last year, so you can see what the math of medicine looks like here in the States.
We’re a married couple with one kid. Fortunately, we’re all relatively healthy. Although, we did have some big-ticket medical issues come up last year. More on that later.
We look like this:
We also have a dog who looks like this:
From a health insurance perspective, my family’s story is not uncommon, but I wouldn’t say it’s typical. The majority of Americans get health insurance through their jobs. Most companies pay for some or all the cost of insurance premiums for their employees. But my wife and I are both freelancers, so we have to pay for what’s known as “private” health insurance – meaning that we need to shop around, get quotes from different insurance companies and then sign up and pay the premiums ourselves.
Last year, our monthly insurance premiums were $958.47.
Now, if you’re one of my Canadian brothers or sisters, that probably seems like an outrageous sum of money, but here in California it’s pretty average. When you pay for private health insurance, you can choose a bronze, silver or gold plan. Gold plans cost the most and cover the most. We have a silver family plan.
At this point you might be wondering something like, “Why don’t you get a job, dude?”
It’s a legit question. If I had a job at a company that provided health insurance, we’d almost certainly pay a lot less. In fact, some companies have started to realize that having really good health insurance can help with recruiting. So – why not hunt for a steady job with good benefits, like so many other people? You make a good point but allow me to retort.
The larger issue is that it creates a systemic problem where people are dependent on their current job for medical insurance. And if you lose your job or need medical care when you’re not working, life can get impossibly expensive. There is a program that allows you to keep your old work insurance for short periods of time called COBRA, which not only has a ridiculous and ironic name, but is unaffordable for many people.
A few years ago, a friend of mine lost his job. When faced with $650 / month payments to keep his insurance while he had zero income, he decided to just go uninsured until he landed a new gig. I mean, he was relatively young and healthy – what could possibly go wrong in the few weeks or months it would take to secure new employment?
His appendix burst.
After an ambulance ride, emergency surgery and three days in the hospital, he was sent home with a bill for $35,000. Now you could argue that he gambled and lost, and it was his own fault he got into this mess. And if you did, I bet I could guess which way you voted in the last election. But, unlike that guy in the White House, my friend couldn’t call his daddy to ask for the money for his COBRA premiums and today he’s still working to pay the bill for an unexpected medical emergency.
When you hear stories like that, it’s easy to see why you’d want to find and keep a job with good insurance, but if everyone chose their career based on whether or not they’d get health insurance, no one would work for themselves or create their own start-up or, like me, move to Hollywood to sell screenplays.
And that, well – come on – I mean, that’s just not American, is it?
Plus, there are a lot of tax and other benefits to being freelance. So, we pay for health insurance privately, along with 15% of the population in the U.S. Let me do the math on that for you:
Annual cost of health insurance: $11,501.64
Damn. It always stings a little more when you add it up. That’s enough to buy a used car, take a safari or go see 768 movies. You know what stings even worse? That number doesn’t include the cost of going to the doctor. In fact, with the exception of annual check-ups and a few other things, it doesn’t cover a fucking penny until we reach our deductible.
Our deducible: $3,800
Technically, there are lower deductibles for each individual on the plan, but that can get pretty confusing and I’m talking about the cost of healthcare for my whole family, so let’s just stick with the family deductible to make it simple. We pay eleven thousand bucks for insurance, and the insurance doesn’t kick in until we’ve payed $3800 out of our own pockets.
Once we reach our deductible, the plan covers 70% of medical expenses and we pay 30% until we reach our Out of Pocket Maximum. I’ve learned that this is really the most important number in your health plan – it’s the max number of dollars you can pay in a year. Once you hit your out of pocket max, your insurance pays for everything else for the rest of the year.
Our Out of Pocket Maximum: $12,800
Hopefully this all makes sense so far, because now we’re gonna get into the confusing shit. Let’s see what happens when Wyatt needs to see his doctor:
In March, the little guy developed a bad cough. Doc says it’s nothing to worry about it – just keep an eye on him and bring him back if it gets worse. A couple of months later, we get a breakdown from our insurance. Here it is:
- Amount charged: $210.00
- Your discounts: $107.88
- Amount due: $102.12
- Insurance paid: $67.12
- Total you pay: $35.00
This is where it gets a little weird. And a little shady. The doc says it costs $210 for an office visit, but ALMOST NO ONE will ever pay that amount. At most places, if you don’t have insurance, they won’t charge that full amount. I didn’t have insurance for a few years (long story for another time about a “preexisting condition” that made me ineligible for health insurance altogether) and was always amazed at the special prices offered to the uninsured.
If you do have insurance, this is what happens: the doctor’s office sends a bill to our insurance for $210. But, because the insurance company has “negotiated” discounted rates in exchange for keeping the doctor in their network (provided the doctor with access to patients on our insurance) we only owe $102.12 of that full amount. Then, the insurance company pays their share and we are responsible for 35 bucks.
A little confusing but nothing that’s going to break the bank, right? Unless you need more significant medical treatment. Like our whole family did last year.
Let’s skip ahead to the spring when I needed knee surgery. I suppose that technically I didn’t “need” to have knee surgery. My knee hurt all the time, but I could walk around. After over a year of physical therapy I finally saw a surgeon and got an MRI. I had a torn meniscus and if I ever wanted to surf or play basketball or chase my kid around the yard without pain, I was going to need an operation.
Now this is the part that is going to seem bananas if you don’t live in America. I seriously considered postponing the surgery or not getting it at all because I knew it was going to cost my family thousands of dollars. In the end I decided I was too young to give up surfing and playing tag with toddlers, so I went ahead with the surgery. Let’s take a look at how much that cost. The first bill I got back was from my surgeon’s office:
- Amount charged: $9,096.08
- Your discounts: $6,181.09
- Amount due: $2,914.99
- Insurance paid: $2,017.49
- Total you pay: $897.50
Now you might say, “You know, 900 bucks doesn’t sound like that much for knee surgery, man.” After all, the surgery was successful, and my knee is back to normal and I’ve blown that amount on a lot more frivolous things. But, that was just the first bill, man. For the rest I’ll just list the amount we had to pay to keep it simple. For months after the surgery we got bills.
- Surgeon’s office visit: $25.18
- Pharmacy: $37.18
- Hospital fee: $566.40
- Surgery fee: $897.50
- Knee brace: $147.96
- Anesthesia: $96.00
- Knee Surgery Total: $1,770.22
And let’s not forget about the two dozen visits to physical therapy after the surgery to help me get back on my feet at $22.50 per visit. But, enough about me. Let’s talk about my wife.
As I mentioned at the start, last year Lex sliced into her finger with a recently sharpened bread knife. It was a bad one. After a day in the ER and follow ups with a specialist they told us that she’d severed the nerve and would either need surgery to repair it or get used to having no feeling on one side of her index finger.
And again, we talked about. This is what happens in America – every time you need medical treatment you have to stop and think, “Can I afford this? Do I really need it?”
A lot of times, people can’t afford it. The number one reason for bankruptcy filings in the US is medical bills people can’t afford to pay. Fortunately for us, we could afford it and Lex didn’t want to live the rest of her life with no feeling in that finger, so it was time for another surgery.
- ER visit: $825.75
- ER doctor: $194.39
- Imaging: $1.77
- Anesthesia: $54.43
- Surgery: $1.028.40
- Surgeon’s fee $230.70
- More imagining: $29.61
- Hospital fee: $460.46
- Hand Surgery Total: $2.825.51*
*If you think that’s a lot of dolla dolla bills, wait til I show you the invoice for having a baby.
Again, this number is the amount we personally paid for all of this. Our insurance company paid a lot more, but these are the bills we had to pay. But the year wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t all need surgery, which brings me to Wyatt and his Trigger Thumb.
When our little guy was two, we noticed that one of his thumbs was stuck in a bent position for a number of days. We took him to the doc. She said it looked like “trigger thumb” and sent us to see a specialist at Children’s Hospital. Turns out that’s exactly what it was. Apparently, a pretty common condition. She recommended that we keep an eye on it for a number of months to see if it resolved but if not, he’d need surgery to fix it. Or, spend the rest of his life without the ability to give a movie two thumbs up.
Now some people might say, “Is that really such a big deal? Are you sure he needs surgery?
But those people are fucking monsters. He’s a kid. Of course we discussed it and of course the conclusion was that our son needed to have surgery to fix his thumb. Sure, his condition wasn’t life-threatening and we are lucky enough to be able to afford it, but speaking on behalf of dads everywhere, no one should ever have to choose between money and the health of their child.
I’m sure we’re both getting tired of math, so let me skip to the total number for that one:
Wyatt Surgery Total: $2,558.35
You’ll be happy to know that the doctors and nurses at Children’s are all angels and superheroes and that Wyatt now has the full use of both of his thumbs, just like the Fonz.
But back to the math. Those were our big-ticket medical expenses for last year, but there were also other smaller ones that slowly added up over the year. We didn’t quite hit our out of pocket max, but we got pretty damn close:
Total cost of medical expenses: $11,409.00
Before I do the final tally, you should know that our medical insurance doesn’t cover vision or dental work, so every time we get a filling or need new contacts, we pay cash for that. I’m not adding those numbers into the total here.
In summary, last year my family of 2 adults and one very small kid spent this much money on medical stuff:
Health insurance premiums: $11,501.64
Medical expenses: $11,409.00
TOTAL COST FOR THE YEAR: $22.910.64
Fuck me, right?
Thankfully Lex and I were both working last year, and we didn’t have to go into debt or go on Kickstarter to pay these bills, but it hurt. All fingers crossed we don’t need more surgeries this year. One really interesting thing that I wish I’d known at the start of the year is that if we’d signed up the cheapest bronze insurance plan we would have saved a bunch of money. Turns out that the out of pocket maximum in California is set by the state, so everyone with private insurance has the same out of pocket max whether they had a bronze, silver or gold plan. The surgeries would have cost the same, but we’d have paid almost $2,000 less in insurance premiums.
The irony is that we’ve switched to bronze for this year, but thanks to our current government’s obsession with ending the Affordable Care Act, the cost of private insurance has gone way up. So even though we downgraded to a bronze plan with a different company our premiums for 2019 look like this:
Monthly insurance premiums: $1,089.39
Annual : $13,072.68
Well, that’s all the math and emotional abuse I can take in one day. If you’re reading this back home in Canada, I hope it was as educational for you as it was demoralizing for me. Hug Vancouver for me and tell mom that we’re still not moving back home any time soon. The surf and the tacos are just too good down here.
If you live in the States, I hope you have good insurance. I hope no one in your family gets sick. I hope you never have to choose between bankruptcy and the health of your children. I hope that America gets its shit together and realizes that the well-being of your family shouldn’t be tied to your job or how much money you have in the bank. I hope that when our kids grow up they don’t have to worry about the math of medicine. I hope.
Posted on August 22, 2017 - by writerman
This is something I wrote for the fine people over at The Black List as part of their series on Essential Rock & Roll movies. It concerns a very important piece of modern American cinema.
It wasn’t easy to choose my essential rock movie. A complete compendium of my favorite rock and roll films would play like one of those AMC 48-hour movie marathons.
Looking for the ultimate concert film? Try THE LAST WALTZ. Into rock journalism and Elton John sing-alongs? Hit up ALMOST FAMOUS. Do you love cheeky British blokes and breaking the fourth wall? Check out 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. Want to laugh your ass off? SPINAL TAP. Love punk? WE ARE THE BEST! Top Five lists? HIGH FIDELITY. Searching for the greatest rock and roll movie of all time? Allow me to direct you to the 17-minute magnum opus that is HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT.
But, if you’re looking to understand the very nature of rock and roll and how it defines us and shapes the world we live in, then only one film will do:
I know that sounds like the setup for a joke that ends with “…NOT!” But I’m being totally serious. Sure, it might be the goofiest rock and roll movie ever made, but take a second (or third or twenty-seventh) look and I think you’ll find that it understands the transformative power of rock on a profound level. Hear me out…
In my first year of junior high, someone spray-painted BLACK SABBATH RULES on the front of our school. I’m from a small town in northern Canada, so this caused quite a stir and sparked a lot of anxious PTA meetings. Was heavy metal music corrupting our kids? Did Ozzy really bite the head off that bat? Was Satan to blame?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I know the guy who did it. And he wasn’t evil or dangerous or in the service of Beelzebub. He was a smart, awkward, gangly teenager who discovered something amazing the first time he listened to Sabbath’s Iron Man: his true self. Those snarling power chords gave him something to believe in. A tribe to belong to. A refuge from a harsh, uncaring world. For teens, finding the music that speaks to you and rocking out is a sacred rite of passage on the path to independence and adulthood.
When I look at Wayne Campbell, I see all of that. For me, he perfectly captures what it’s like to be a dorky teenager (albeit one played by a 29-year-old) finding your place in the world, guided by an unshakeable belief in the power and purity of rock and roll.
The first time I saw WAYNE’S WORLD, I loved it because these guys were such an honest, hilarious depiction of the headbangers of my youth. And for the epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene. But watching it again recently, I feel like it offers something more:
Wayne and Garth are all of us.
They rock against the forces of conformity. They stand up to the Man. They chase their dreams, even when the rest of the world looks down on them. They drive a frickin’ AMC Pacer. They love each other. But also something greater than themselves. They say they’re not worthy, but we know that they are. They want to boldly go where no man has gone before, but they’ll probably stay in Aurora.
Give this movie another look and I bet it will surprise you. It might happen.
Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.
Posted on November 9, 2016 - by writerman
Last night, while election results were rolling in, my two-year-old pooped his pants. This morning, I realized that Wyatt’s potty-training accident and America’s election were one in the same. And so I write this note both to my little guy and to my United States of America:
Hey you – we need to talk about what happened last night.
You shit your pants.
It was bad. Real bad. I mean, when I saw the horror of what you’d done, I questioned everything. Was this all my fault? Were you not ready? Should we just burn the house down and move back to Canada? Will we ever be able to scrub off that godawful smell?
I’ll admit that I overreacted in the moment. I was angry and confused and disappointed and disgusted and more than a little scared. I honestly couldn’t understand how something so terrifying could have happened so quickly. I shouldn’t have lost my temper, and that half bottle of bourbon was probably a little excessive, and I’m sorry. But, now that I’ve had a moment to recover and reflect, there’s something I want you to know:
I love you, and we’re going to get through this together.
I know that underneath all of the rancid, hateful shit you smeared all over yourself last night is a heart full of wonder and compassion and joy and empathy. A beautiful soul that has made me proud so many times before and will make me proud again.
It’s going to take some time and some work and it won’t be easy, but I believe in you. I know you can do better. I know you want to do better. And you will. But I need you to understand something: if you want to wear big kid pants and be in charge of yourself, you need to take that responsibility seriously. When you are ready to do that, we can move forward to a brighter future.
Years from now, when we look back on this dark time in our lives, Shitstorm 2016 will be our lowest point, but also a turning point.
Now let’s put on our hazmat suits and get to work cleaning this shit up.
Posted on July 9, 2016 - by writerman
This morning, a kid at the gas station told me I had “fly kicks.”
The list below tracks how his statement made me feel, in chronological order:
Posted on August 13, 2014 - by writerman
This week, we lost our Captain.
It’s just heartbreaking that someone who brought such joy to millions struggled so much with depression in his private life. I didn’t know him, so I won’t try to add to the wonderful remembrances coming from the people who loved him and were lucky enough to work with him. But I still miss him. And the world is definitely a little darker today, without his incandescent light. I can only imagine how hard this is on his family.
As we mourn his passing, let’s not forget to celebrate the great things he did while he was here, and everything he left behind.
Robin Williams is gone too soon, but Mrs. Doubtfire and Mr. Keating and Mork and the Genie will stay with us, forever.
10. The World According to Garp (1982)
Thanks to director George Roy Hill for giving Robin his first chance to show that he could do more than be the funniest guy in the room.
9. Mork & Mindy (1978 – 1982)
I suppose this is cheating a little – including a TV show in this list of movies, but how could I leave out our favorite Orkan? I still remember seeing him burst on to the screen on Happy Days for the first time.
8. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
A love letter to America from Paul Mazursky. One of the best movies about New York City, ever.
7. Good Will Hunting (1997)
I wish Robin Williams was my therapist.
6. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
He’s only on screen in this wonderfully messy Terry Gilliam movie for five minutes, but it’s a pretty amazing five minutes.
5. Aladdin (1992)
I took a girl to this movie on our first date. She thought it was kind of boring. We didn’t have a second date.1
4. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
On paper, this looks a terrible idea for a movie. I wonder how they pitched it – as a Tootsie remake with the mime from Shakes the Clown in a fat suit? But Robin Williams brings so much charm and fun to his part that he carries the rest of the movie right along with him.
3. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
I love this movie, but I was seriously obsessed with the soundtrack. I played the shit out of that thing, until I knew every word and every song. And, thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can listen to the whole thing just like I did in my parent’s house in 1987 – on the original vinyl.
2. Dead Poets Society (1989)
“…the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
1. The Fisher King (1991)
Robin Williams is best known for his hyper-kinetic stage persona and his incredible ability to riff and jump from one tangent to another, but one of the great things about this movie is that it shows how good he can be in quiet moments like the waltz in Grand Central or this weird little double date. Watch it again. I dare you not to love it.
- Full disclosure – the real reason we didn’t make it to date number two is that she thought I was kind of boring, but sometimes the fiction sounds better (and stings less) than the truth, right? [↩]
Posted on July 3, 2014 - by writerman
On Friday, April 25, I became a dad for the first time.
One of the things no one tells you about being a new dad (probably because it’s tremendously unimportant in the grand scheme of things) is that you can’t take a newborn baby to the movies. The thing is, I really love going to the movies. I love everything about it. The huge screen. The surround sound. The trailers. Sitting in a sea of strangers as we all watch the story together. Stuffing my face with popcorn and m&m’s.1 Going to the movies is one of my favorite things in life.
I don’t know if it’s The Grass is Always Greener Syndrome™, but it seems like a lot of high-quality popcorn flicks full of monsters, superheroes, dragons, witches, monkeys, undercover cops, next-door neighbors and even Tom Cruise are hitting the screens this summer. And because I won’t be back in a theatre until the meatball is a little bigger, here are my Top 10 movies that absolutely, positively need to be seen on the Big Screen.2
Go to the movies, people. Go.
10. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam had to be on this list, because everything he does is meant to be seen on a 70-foot screen.
9. Spellbound (2002)
Not an obvious choice, but seeing this little documentary about the Scripps National Spelling Bee was one of the best in-theatre experiences I’ve ever had. Watching these kids try and spell words you’ve never even heard of was surprisingly gripping and had the entire audience on the edge of our seats and cheering for the winners (and losers) right up until the final minute.
8. Unforgiven (1992)
Sorry John Ford, but for me the Western that plays the best on the big screen is a bleak, unromantic take on the genre from Clint Eastwood. Props to unsung screenwriter David Webb Peoples , who not only wrote this fantastic movie, but also two sci-fi epics that almost made this list – Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Once in a while you get blown away by a really smart, well-written movie, and it inspires you to race home to your desk and get to work on your latest script. Rarer still are the ones that make you want to go home and burn everything you’ve ever written, because none of it can ever measure up to the picture you just saw. Well played, Charlie Kaufman.
6. Fargo (1996)
The Coen brothers are best known for their little movies with big stories, but a few of their movies are fantastically cinematic. Oh Brother Where Art Thou is gorgeous to see and hear, but the way Fargo made the landscape and the weather into characters in the movie makes it their best big screen effort for me.
5. Alien (1979)
I love this movie for the performances and Ridley Scott’s vision of a broken-down filthy future, but that’s not why it needs to be seen on the big screen. The next time the Arclight or another cinema near you has a special screening of the original Alien, I dare you to sit in a dark theater and watch it again. It will scare the living shit out of you.
4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The first Star Wars will always be my favorite, but waiting in line for Empire on opening weekend was probably the most excited I will ever be at a movie theater. And it did not disappoint. The effects, space battles and father and son moments blew my 8-year-old mind almost as much as this behind the scenes photo of Chewie and Leia is blowing yours right now.
3. Lord of the Rings: Part One (2001)
Come back with me, to a simpler time. A time before the interminable sequels and the neverending story of The Hobbit movies. A time when a wingnut director from New Zealand turned my favorite book ever into a really, really great adventure movie. About twenty minutes in, I turned to the person next to me and whispered excitedly, “This is so good!” #boromirforever
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
When I was in college in Vancouver, there was an old second-run theater downtown that used to play Indiana Jones marathons on slow nights. Three movies for the price of one! We used to go early to catch all of Raiders and the opening sequence of Temple of Doom. Then, we’d head out to grab something eat and get back in time to watch the end of the second movie and settle in for Last Crusade. Good times.
1. The Matrix (1999)
I did not expect to like this movie. All I remember about the ad campaign is hearing Johnny Utah say “Whoa” again and again. And yet, when the lights went down at the Capitol 6 and Trinity and the Wachowskis reinvented the fight scene, I was converted. Fifteen years later, it still holds up remarkably well. I know they play it on cable TV all the time now, but if you are watching bullet time at home, you’re doing it wrong.
- Seriously – my mother-in-law taught me this trick (she may have even invented it). Pour m&m’s into your popcorn bag and eat them together, in big handfuls. It will change your life. [↩]
- Fully aware that 2001 is missing from this list, but that’s only because I’m saving it for Top 10 Movies to Watch Stoned [↩]
Posted on March 10, 2014 - by writerman
The other day, a friend who wants to write his first script asked me for advice on how to get started. I love answering that question, for two reasons:
1. The first step is my favorite
2. No actual writing is involved
Here’s what I told my friend. The critical first step in writing a movie of your very own is:
Make a playlist
Totally serious. All the cool kids are doing it. Put together a playlist of tracks that you can listen to while you are working. Keep in mind that the goal here isn’t to pick songs that will end up in the movie, but to pick songs that get across the feeling you want the movie to evoke. I also like to include songs that represent important characters. Then I put it on repeat1 while I’m working. It really helps you get in the right headspace, especially when shifting gears between multiple projects.
The longer I’ve been working on a script, the more songs end up in the playlist. I’m always adding new tracks that capture the tone of a certain scene or personality of a minor character. Because scouring the web for music is the best kind of procrastination cleverly disguised as work.
Here’s the playlist I’ve got on repeat today – music for writing the high school comedy. After months of typing and re-typing, the playlist has evolved into a pretty eclectic beast, but the tunes generally fall into three categories:
1. The sounds of the setting
The story is set in a huge public school in Washington D.C., held down by the sounds of Tupac, Biggie and Dr. Dre.
2. Main character music
The hero is a freshman who’s trying to survive his first day in the tangled jungle of high school. He’s a “diplobrat” who had been attending elite private schools while getting dragged around the globe by his diplomat dad, until an incident2 at school in Japan gets him booked on the first plane home to D.C. to live with his moms and attend Hamilton High. He sounds like new-school hipster acts Phoenix and Vampire Weekend.
3. The glorious 80’s
And, because it’s been more than a few years since my last pep rally, this playlist is packed with 80s jams that take me back to a simpler, emotionally-tumultuous time to reconnect with my high-school-self. So yeah, The Cure & The Smiths, but also The Outfield and Cheap Trick. Plus, a bonus track in honor of John Hughes that might just be the best use of music in a movie, like, ever.
Enjoy. And thanks to the Internets for making this so much easier than it used to be.
- Seriously – the woman in my life is so fucking sick of these songs. [↩]
- And by “incident” I’m sure you know I meant “fist-fight at the science fair.” [↩]
Posted on July 1, 2013 - by writerman
As the car crossed the state line, we rolled the windows down and pumped our fists.
We’d been driving for eleven hours. It was the late, early 90’s and I was in my early, mid 20’s.
I was born in a small town in northern Canada. Not quite in the Arctic, but close enough. The kind of place where your Halloween costume had to fit over your snowsuit. On Mondays and Wednesdays an overnight train shuttled tourists up to Churchill to take pictures of polar bears. I don’t remember it all that well, but my Uncle Mark once described it as “The Worst Shithole of a Town I’ve Ever Seen.”
It was cold and snowy and lonely and landlocked. We were six hundred miles from the U.S. border, fifteen hundred away from the Pacific, and well over two thousand miles from Disneyland. Naturally, I developed an unhealthy obsession with California. At least, what I knew about it from watching TV and listening to pop songs. The sunshine, the beaches, the singing, dancing raisins. Most importantly, the girls. In my mind, the girls of California were sassy and fast-talking like Janet from Three’s Company and spent all of their free time at the beach, dressed like extras from a David Lee Roth video. Their hair was perfect. Someday, one would be mine. It was fate.
Eventually we moved west to a new town, now only seven hundred miles from the Pacific.
When I was eight, I saw the ocean for the first time.
In junior high, a girl from my math class came back from a family holiday with an impossible tan and a Knott’s Berry Farm t-shirt. She smelled like Coppertone® and destiny. We never spoke, but I followed her around for a couple of weeks until her tan faded.
After high school, I moved to Vancouver to go to college and took up beach volleyball.
At nineteen, I stood up on a surfboard for the first time.
And then, finally, my big chance arrived. My older brother got in to UCLA. I had a free place to crash in California. I also had two weeks off between the end of my summer job and the beginning of the fall semester, a couple hundred bucks saved up and my own set of wheels. My own four-door, 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlas Sierra, to be specific. Like the commercials boasted, this was not my father’s Oldsmobile. It had actually been my mom’s, but now it was mine.
Rob and Keith, two of my oldest friends, were joining me. Turns out that three is the ideal number of guys for a non-stop road trip from Vancouver to LA. One guy drives, one guy sits up front and keeps the driver awake, and one guy sleeps in the back. When the driver gets tired, you rotate positions. Done properly, this saves money on hotels and gets you to Los Angeles in around twenty-two hours. The first eleven hours were pretty uneventful, but things really started to get interesting once we crossed the state line. A candy apple red car blew past us in the fast lane.
The car was a convertible. A Miata with California plates. There were three passengers. Two blonde. One brunette. All female. Definitely cute. Clearly liked to party.1 At least one of them waved to us as they passed. These were the facts and they were undisputed.
A few minutes later, the Oldsmobile’s four-cylinder engine strained as we caught up to the Miata. We waved. They waved back, smiling. I pulled a page out of the Good Will Hunting guide to picking up girls and slapped a series of large, handwritten notes on the window:
“We’re from Canada.”
“Can we buy you dinner?”
And just like that, we were in. They knew a place. We followed them into Sacramento. At that moment, I was more certain than ever that California was my destiny.
When the place they knew turned out to be a family restaurant just off the freeway, I probably should have seen what was coming. But we were too busy arguing about who had dibs on the hot one from the front seat to notice. Once we got inside, the bright lights of Applebee’s would reveal the truth.
Our convertible of California Girls turned out to be a single mom with two daughters.
The older daughter was fifteen. Oh God. I am a bad person. An accidental pervert. I fully expected local law enforcement to appear and slap the cuffs on us. It was too late to run. We stood there, frozen in shock and shame. Finally, Mrs. Single Mom broke the silence, “What are you waiting for? Sit on down! Y’all must be starvin’ after driving all the way from Canada!”
It was actually a pretty nice dinner. I ate my Cowboy Burger™ quickly, wanting the awkwardness to end, but Mrs. Single Mom didn’t seem phased at all. She did admit to feeling a little suspicious at first, but quickly concluded that we were obviously good Canadian boys who posed no threat to her or her young daughters. How could she be so certain that we weren’t dangerous men? Had she no regard for the safety of her children? I would have given her a lecture about being more careful not to expose her daughters to creepy potential predators, except that I was the creepy potential predator in question. We paid the check and got up to leave. She hugged each of us goodbye, and even gave us her address, in case we needed a place to stay on our way home. We didn’t take her up on the offer, but her words stuck with me as we jumped back on the freeway,
“Y’all just seemed like such nice boys, I knew I could trust you.”
This would not stand. I wasn’t going to let my people’s reputation for good manners and civility spoil our hopefully debaucherous road trip. Nice could suck it. We weren’t going to pick up lifeguards or swimsuit models or burlesque dancers with nice. We needed a new game. We needed a little danger.
My parents have four sons. Chris is the oldest, smartest and, by far, the most responsible. He’d decided to join us for our spontaneous sojourn into TJ, probably to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid. But we had him outnumbered.
You might wonder why young men looking for the love of the girls of California were on our way into Mexico. It was basically a legal matter. The legal drinking age in Mexico is eighteen. And so every afternoon, hoards of students from San Diego cross the border for a night of cheap drinks and bad decisions. We were in fine company. The last good decision we made was leaving the car in San Diego and walking across.
First, we checked into a hotel that Rob’s Lonely Planet guide called “well situated” and “affordable.” For twenty-nine bucks a night, the four of us got a room with two beds and one bathroom. The toilet didn’t flush. I called the front desk to request a working toilet. My Spanish isn’t great, but I’m fairly confident that he told me to, “Fix it with my gringo face.” He might have also suggested something involving a donkey and a popsicle, but I can’t say for sure. Either way, we decided to head straight for the nearest bar in search of working toilets and lonely American girls.
Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución is infamous. A chaotic mass of street hawkers aggressively competing for American dollars. If your only exposure to Mexico was a night out on “La Revo,” you’d swear the local economy ran entirely on tacos, Chiclets, ponchos, tequila, photogenic zebras and pussy. We elected to take a methodical approach to our evening. Both sides of the avenue are lined with bars and nightclubs. All offer a free shot of tequila with your first drink. The plan was simple. Enter bar. Pay for one beer. Slam tequila. Move next door. Repeat. When we met some girls, we’d move to Plan B.
To avoid confusion, Plan B was basically Plan A with girls.
Six or seven bars later, we finally met some young ladies. Eight of them, in fact. They were soldiers. Off duty Marines. Which might sound a little scary, but from what I could tell they were cute, between eighteen and twenty-one, and on their way to being as drunk as we were. And if we were buying, they were totally on board with Plan B.
At the end of the block, we finally stumbled into a club with a decent crowd and decided to stay for more than one drink. The girls hit the dance floor with Chris and Keith while Rob and I sat down to discuss strategy. The conversation went something like this:
“OK, which one?”
“Which girl do you want to hook up with?”
“The Asian one!”
“Aren’t three of them Asian?”
“The hot one, obviously.”
“Holy shit, man. Check that out!”
Rob pointed to the dance floor, where my older, shy, responsible brother was in the middle of what I can only describe as a dirty dancing sandwich. Two girls, one scientist. Just then, a waitress in a low-cut top stopped at our table to see if we wanted her to pour tequila from a giant flask down our throats. I mean, what would you have done?
That is the last thing I remember. I woke up the next morning back in the hotel with a bad hangover and a new poncho. The evidence suggested no females had returned with us. Keith was missing.2 The toilet was still broken.
Fast-forward to seven days later, and I had failed to find love at nearly every popular tourist site within three hundred miles of LA. Venice Beach. Santa Monica. Malibu. Hollywood. Six Flags. Even Vegas. Keith did meet a girl in Disneyland, but she lived in far-off Orange County, so it only led to a couple of late-nite, long-distance phone calls.3 We were almost out of time and pretty much out of money. I needed to clear my head. I ditched the guys and drove up to Topanga Canyon for a surf.
From the beach, surfing appears to have no rules. But don’t believe everything you see in an energy drink commercial. Surfing might seem like the unofficial Official Sport of freedom and rebellion, but the truth is that out on the water, there’s a lot of order to the chaos. There’s a certain etiquette that dictates who gets the next wave and who’s got the right of way. It’s a lot like driving around a traffic circle. If everyone observes the etiquette, cars and surfers flow seamlessly in a delicate dance of stop and go and ebb and flow. But, it only takes one jackass to screw the whole thing up. I paddled out.
Thirty minutes later, I was cold, exhausted and terrified. These waves were much bigger and faster and meaner than anything I’d been on before. My ears and sinus cavities were completely full of seawater. It was time to go in. When the next wave came, I jumped to my feet. So did the girl about ten feet to my left. She was headed straight for me. I tried to turn, but succeeded only in wiping out directly in her path. She leaped off her board to avoid a collision. The wave crashed into us and I bounced off the bottom. As soon as I surfaced, I waved in apology, “Sorry! My bad! I didn’t see you there until it was too late.”
She looked pissed, but she waved me over. “Come here for a second! I want to ask you something.”
I clambered back on my board. I was a bit nervous to face her, but as I paddled over the fear faded and was replaced with this singular thought:
“Oh wow, this girl is really pretty.”
Maybe this was my big chance. Maybe I just needed to get away from the guys to meet someone. I mean, I’d always had a thing for surfer girls. Maybe this was the special girl that California had been saving for me. I swam right up to her and smiled my biggest, friendliest Canadian smile. “Hey. Sorry about that. What’s up?”
And that’s when she punched me in the face.
It was a solid punch. Accurate. Well thrown. I’ll confess – it really hurt. Both my nose and my childhood dreams were bruised. She paddled away without a word.
I swam in, dried off and drove back to my brother’s place. We didn’t talk about it. The next morning, we got up and started the long drive home.
It turns out that my fantasies about California Girls had been all wrong. They weren’t Janet. Or Chrissy, for that matter. They didn’t all play volleyball and run on the beach in slow motion in their spare time. Most of them were too busy to hang at the beach, and one of the few things they agreed on was that David Lee Roth was a douche. But that little punch in the face had shown me the truth.
The truth about the girls of California is that they drove like assholes. They got pregnant in high school. They had Semper Fi tattoos. They spoke Spanish and Farsi and Hebrew and Korean. They had a second job, a sick cutback, a wicked left hook and a little scar just below their lips from that accident. They were perfect.
As we pulled on to the I5, I waved goodbye to the sunshine state, but I knew that I’d return. California was like a sunscreen-scented magnet, slowly, inevitably drawing me back to her.
- To be fair, this fact was in dispute, but Rob was so convinced that the rest of us just went along with it. [↩]
- For the record, Keith turned up a few hours later with a sheepish grin and a sordid tale of pick-up trucks, tacos, late-night border crossings and early-morning narrow escapes. [↩]
- To this day, Keith still owes my brother fifty bucks plus interest in long distance charges. [↩]
Posted on November 6, 2012 - by writerman
There’s a great bit in Adaptation where a fictional version of the real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee interrupts Charlie Kaufman’s internal monologue with this line:
“…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”
For a long time, I never used VO in any of my scripts either. Until a couple of years ago when I was writing something new. As I worked my way through the first draft, I kept hearing this narrator’s voice in my head. And I kept ignoring it and ignoring it, and it kept getting louder and more insistent and I finally put it down on the page. Suddenly the story really started working and the script landed on just the tone I was hoping for. Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us a story.
10. The Big Lebowski (1998)
“Sometimes, there’s a man. I won’t say a hero. Cause, what’s a hee-ro? But, sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time ‘n place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.”
Thank you, Sam Elliott.
9. Pulp (1972)
Not a great movie, but a fantastic use of voice-over. Michael Caine’s detective novelist narrator Mickey King speaks in the clipped, hard-boiled tones we expect from the genre, while the action shows us the counter-point of the mundane truth. At one point, after being shot, King tells us that he “removed his shirt to use as a tourniquet,” while on screen we watch him pass out at the sight of his own blood.
Plus, you had to know Michael Caine would appear on this list somewhere.
8. Trainspotting (1996)
I’ll confess that I can’t remember a ton of Ewan McGregor’s narration from this one, but the opening monologue is so perfect, I had to include it on the list.
7. Double Indemnity (1944)
Damn, I love this movie. So much style. So much snappy dialogue. Such a great story. And, if you’re really paying attention, you’ll spot a short, uncredited cameo by the grandfather of hard-boiled fiction himself.
6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The first half of this film is so much depraved fun. This is one of those movies I can’t even imagine without voice-over. The novel is so quotable, we really needed someone to read it to us, even as we watch.
“The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon”
5. Goodfellas (1990)
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Ray Liotta’s voice carries us all the way through this crazy story and makes his mad, violent world seem almost enviable. Sure, it ends poorly, but who didn’t want to be a gangster after watching the scene at the Copacabana? I also have to give a shout out to the greatest cooking scene in movie history.
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The movie that, once and for all, established Morgan Freeman as the Voice Over Master. Case closed.
3. Amélie (2001)
Funny that a movie where I have to read the VO is in my top 3. But the narration is so good that it really makes the movie. Shit, someone liked it so much they even made an American adaptation.
“Nino is late. Amelie can only see two explanations. 1 – he didn’t get the photo. 2 – before he could assemble it, a gang of bank robbers took him hostage. The cops gave chase. They got away… but he caused a crash. When he came to, he’d lost his memory. An ex-con picked him up, mistook him for a fugitive, and shipped him to Istanbul. There he met some Afghan raiders who too him to steal some Russian warheads. But their truck hit a mine in Tajikistan. He survived, took to the hills, and became a Mujaheddin. Amelie refuses to get upset for a guy who’ll eat borscht all his life in a hat like a tea cozy.”
2. Fight Club (1999)
“I am Jack’s smirking revenge.”
Tyler Durden’s Rules of Fight Club speech gets all the glory, but Edward Norton’s nameless narrator’s rambling thoughts are really the heart and soul of this movie.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
He doesn’t ever appear on screen, but Alec Baldwin gives the best performance in this movie, by far. Which is pretty amazing, when you think about the rest of the cast in Wes Anderson’s second-best picture.
- I should clarify that this is not intended to be a list of the best movies that used voice-over, but rather, a list of the best uses of voice-over in movies. [↩]
- Also – this list doesn’t include Ferris and Alvy and John Cusack because, while I love those guys, speaking to the camera during a scene feels like something different than voice-over. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a list for breaking the 4th wall some day… [↩]
Posted on October 4, 2012 - by writerman
Sometimes, when I’m not busy typing, I play the trumpet. Usually this means staying up past my bedtime and getting beer spilled on my shoes, but once in a while it means spending the afternoon in a studio and blowing my horn into a shiny microphone.
This one time, I got paid in cupcakes.
No, seriously. The lovely and talented Maureen Bharoocha directed a film-noir-style short for Sprinkles Cupcakes and the talented and lovely Keith Waggoner did the music. Keith got me to come over and make some trumpet sounds.
Check it out. The star has a groovy, poor-man’s-Humphrey-Bogart-style and it features dessert, drinking, fedoras and a femme fatale. Heck, it’s even Patton Oswalt – approved.
Black & White
In exchange for a couple hours of my time, I took home a dozen delicious cupcakes. According to my math, that works out to around 6 cupcakes per hour, which is a pretty decent wage for a musician in Los Angeles.
For the record, no one should attempt to eat a dozen cupcakes alone.