POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don’t get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE’s purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.
Five small tables lined up against a bright yellow wall, chess -boards sit atop each in various states of play. The camera dollies parallel to Xtop at table one as he pulls a checkers move, his queen leapfrogs across the board while Darin shakes his head no. Timmy, at table two, wearing the Sagawa Oakleys, bopping in time to music as Brandon sits down. Kel, at three, glares to her left. Robonapoleon, the giant robot star of our spots, occupies table four singularly. No one plays chess with a giant robot. Ba-dump-bump. The camera holds at table five, and from my spot in front of the monitor I peg him with a coffee cup. Wa-wahhh. A few takes, one for safety, we got the shot and begin striking.
The pieces from the five chess -boards are put away and people have their coats on when Mike, the DP, suggests we check playback. We do, and somehow we missed the dolly handle and track in the shot. I apologize to everyone; we reset to one and get the shot again.
Of course, it’s because we were all laughing about how well the shoot has been going so far.
There’s no end to exhaustion, only an end to your resistance to exhaustion. Down in it with a too-long to-do list, you keep your head down and prop your eyes open and get the job done the best you can. Sleep isn’t for the weak– it’s for the sleepy. So don’t be sleepy. I’ll get 27 out of 30 things done, but fuck if I can do 2 out of 3.
Barely a week ago I’m tooling around with Kieron Dwyer, in town for a comic convention, telling him about the spots we’re going to shoot. We’re shooting fifteen or so spots for SHOnext, the independent film offshoot of the cable network Showtime. Concurrent with the pre-production I’ve been doing on those, there’s been another job we’ve been dancing with for a month, maybe more now. It’s taken me to Los Angeles twice, it’s the biggest job we’ve ever been looked at for, and certainly has the highest budget. This gig, this potential gig has been the 900-lb. bear in our collective living room for long enough. We’re waiting for a phonecall to find out if we lost it or if we got it and thus have a whole new set of problems to deal with.
So the phone rings.
It rings as we’re driving to dinner, and I give the celphone to Kel in the back seat so she can relay what Superrep Mick, who has spoken finally to the 900-lb. client, is saying. It’s not good. Well, it’s not exactly bad.
What she’s telling me through Mick is that while the 900-lb. client likes the work that we’ve shown, they still want to see more. It’s a stall tactic, a ruse; it’s blood from a stone at this point anyway, we’re all running on fumes. The deadline they’re working under is near insurmountable, and every second they don’t green light the gig is another VP that’s gonna get fired come February. They want one last round, one last run at the work, one more drop from the stone.
I fight with the client in my head, burning out all that bad mojo and meanthinking, telling her that the difference between me and her is that I’m still gonna have my job in a year. It’s a good line, very movie like, and I can imagine the camera pushing in on her reaction, shattered, devastated, the music swells, cut to:
Interior, tattoo shop, night. This spot wasn’t my idea, it was the Showtime’s– and it was so funny I agreed to do it before we got a location secured. The robot picks a tattoo, and it’s put on with a benzene torch. The shop is bright white fluorescent and smells clean. Hollywood lies to everyone. Whispering Danny, the guy who runs the shop, is laid back and funny. He watches us set up this seven-foot robot in his workspace with the bemused smirk of a man that’s tattooed smile-faces on nutsacks and ‘eat me’ in cursive across more than one woman’s pubis mons. Producer Teddy says that a hundred years ago, we’d be circus folk, carnies. He’s right.
He tells me this as we’re on our way to the strip club. The strip club is up north, close to the airport. After dinner, I take Kieron there. Not so much that we want to go to a strip club, but that I have to get the girl to be in the spot, and the club management insisted I come Friday night when all the girls were there. We get the right girl, and Kieron and I hanker down in the back, me drinking Red Bull, him drinking beer, and talk over the loudspeakers and undulating grind-tunes like Baby Got Back and Girls, Girls, Girls. We politely decline table- and lap-dances the entire night. We stare at the all-pro strip club going geeks: the strange Turk who gives bill after bill to the girl standing next to him at the lip of the stage so that she may slather the dancer beneath them. The Really Fat Guy that needs to buy not one, but two lap-dances in a go– one girl for each thigh. The Androgynous Sopranos Aficionado.
Kieron is not at all what you would assume from his work in Lowest Common Denominator. What’s more, he’s not the kind of guy you’d assume him to be from his work on Avengers, either. I’m amped on work-rage and general adrenaline and talk a mile a minute. I’m a nattering jackass and it’s not until Kieron and I part ways two days later that I recognize that deafening silence as the absence of my own voice.
I ask him what goes through his mind while he draws God’s nutsack. Not much, he says with a self-deprecating laugh.
He’s wrapping up his final pages on Avengers and will then dive into our graphic novel, LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS. We talk about everything inside and out, and find we’re on the same page about a lot of things. We come up with a cool format idea. I like Kieron. He’s extraordinarily affable, the kind of guy you could call to come get you if you woke up naked in an Alaskan prison at four in the morning. The first night, after I drop him off, I lose time on the highway. I blink out for a second to find a whole new story in my head, fully formed and ready to be typed just for Kieron. I come back to find I’ve been driving for twenty minutes, maybe more, and I’m not entirely sure where I am. This has been happening a lot lately.
Being up and going at it from 8 to 4, 5 in the morning for two weeks will fray the edges of your brain-blanket alright. Zombie conference calls. Lumbering around for clients has meant no time for writing, or at least no energy, although I’ve realized that over the last week or so I’ve been writing subconsciously. BIG HAT and REVISITOR, which had both been stuck at various points in their development solve themselves and un-spool spontaneously. Strange. I feel like I just need the time to type them out. I need to sleep and eat, too, but you take what you can get. The lights along 35 smear and flare up. I probably shouldn’t be driving. The lights of the city fade out…
FADE IN, strip club, a week later. It’s a Sunday morning and, oh god, here we are in a strip club. I’m sorry- a Gentleman’s Entertainment Club. Three spots here: one with a stripper, one in the bathroom, one at the bar. The stripper doesn’t understand why I’m putting a band-aid on her calve. Because it’s funny, I say. She thinks it’s a mark of an unprofessional, that no real dancin’ girl worth her thong would go out on the runway with a band-aid showing. Exactly, exactly.
Two nights earlier I was dreading this. I go see PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and come home to nerves and whatiffing and worstcasescenarioing all night long. I’m supposed to be on-set by 8:30 but I’m not asleep before 6. I’ve worked and reworked all the spots in my head five or six times, looking for ways to circumnavigate the inevitable crises that will arise. The biggest advantage I find to having all these alternate plans is that I really have NO plan anymore, other than to remain flexible and have fun. Improvise on themes and trust your instincts, get to the locations and find the shots.
I find one in the club that’s unscripted, it’d be two or six simple shots, but Shaun seems less game to play than he did yesterday. Our first day, Saturday, we got four spots done and made up two spontaneously. I don’t know if he’s tired or pissed off today or what, but the vibe is considerably more Hurry Up And Get It Done. Okay, so we do. I start looking for ways to make him being inside of the suit easier, but it doesn’t really help. The Suit is a monster.
The Suit! Jesus. The robot is seven feet tall on Shaun’s frame. We built it over the last few days, when we weren’t mollycoddling the 900-lb. Client with that One Last Round of design. We should just move cots into the office. Designing and re-strategizing and conference calling, Shaun and I ducking into the back corner when we can to hack through sheet metal and build the ‘bot up. The idea is that he looks like something someone would be very proud of… in 1955. A sci-fi creature-feature sort of thing, big and bulky, a shining atomic age Frankenstein. I think it works, but Christ is it cumbersome.
The last night of shooting, after we lost Shaun for the evening, I find out how cumbersome. I climb in and do the last three spots myself. Holy living crap. I need to spend a little time every day for the rest of my life thanking Shaun for tooling around in this goddamn thing for four days.
I’m inside the suit, slumping forward to hike the weight off of my biceps and onto my back while waiting for the tape to get cued up for another take. Suddenly this writing comics thing doesn’t feel so bad.
MATCH CUT on ‘comics’ to me and Chris Allen, firing off email to one another that gradually shift from fuck-you angry to fuck-me contrite. Later he’ll apologize in his column when he doesn’t need to, and I’ll note I need to do the same. Chris– sorry. He lobs a lot of shit my way, some of it deserved and some of it not. Most of it stems from me not
thinking about what I’m writing in POPLIFE before I send it off, too much murk buried in personal semaphore. Regardless of what I want to think, ostensibly someone’s going to read it and writing in shorthand does no one but me any good. Didn’t help that I padded out a week with the TV column when I didn’t have time to get down in it.
Somehow, though, this couple weeks of madness has been a sort-of welcome wakeup call from my post-Mexican Honeymoon stupor. All those multitasking cylinders fire up again and there’s nothing I can’t do. My hands and fingers are shredded from poorly cut sheet metal. My arms and back ache from the weight of the suit. I can’t keep my eyes open much past one or two in the morning without passing out. I’ve had grand plans all week but only seem to be able to get four or five things done at one time. That’s okay. Sleep is for the sleepy. I have too much to do.
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