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How Making a Movie Made Me Love My Old Job Again

A humor writer's misadventures trying to become a film director

By Peter Gerstenzang | April 30, 2014

No matter how much you love your work, if enough time goes by, even the best job starts to seem routine.
 
Although the boredom is often temporary, it seems to hit nearly every boomer unless your gig is something really exciting — like being a Soldier of Fortune.
 
Even I, a humor writer, wasn’t exempt from this midlife ennui. A year back, I found myself suddenly sick of sitting alone at a desk, writing a funny passage and waiting for my mailman, so I could read it to him.
 
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A Solution to My Boredom

Finally, after yet another humdrum day, it hit me. I loved movies. I craved human contact. Why not combine these two urges and make a short, funny film?
 
At the least, it would be a challenge. At best, this film might snag me a studio contract. I mean, could it be any worse than Big Momma’s House?
 
It turned out to be the best mistake of my life. Let me explain.
 
I’d studied film in college, so I could throw around terms like “parallel action” and “mise-en-scene.” Still, I thought some practical training was indicated.
 
A One-Week Course in Filmmaking

So I took a one-week course to relearn some basics — like which end of the camera to look through and how to light actors so they don’t come out looking like an X-ray.
 
It was great fun. Plus, talking with other film students was stimulating. I'd started feeling like a new man already.
 
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I asked a couple of classmates if they’d help on shooting day and then went home to write a short script. The film would star me; I’d taken some acting in college, so I had skills. But I possessed more important qualities: I was an egomaniac and a control freak.
 
The Story of My Movie

I wrote a script, called Repossession. Its premise was that I’d fallen behind on my student loan so the government, unable to get any money from me, started repossessing my education.
 
Soon, I had my lines memorized, my props and a Mini-DV camcorder checked out from school. Filming day, I came into Manhattan prepared. For everything but the August heat at our location, which was my classmate’s loft.
 
It’s hard to act and direct under normal circumstances. But when it’s 90 degrees? You can remember your lines and your instructions to the cameraman or woman, alright. But start talking and eventually you sound as incomprehensible as Benicio Del Toro in The Usual Suspects.
 
On top of that, without my permission, my cameraman had brought a friend along. The friend wasn’t a classmate. In fact, I don’t think she’d ever seen a movie before. But that didn’t stop her from trying to co-direct. She kept offering advice, ruining takes and driving me crazy.
 
Coping With a Director's Woes

I asked her to leave. She refused. I panicked. Then I had an epiphany. Real directors deal with thousands of distractions every day. Certainly, I could handle one. So I focused, looked through the camera each time we set up a shot and pretended the heckler wasn’t there.
 
It took another eight hours to shoot the scenes I’d written. Some were spoiled by car alarms outside where we were shooting. Others by power surges. Also, there was that impossible actor I was working with: Me!
 
Due mostly to the heat, I made so many mistakes, the whole thing could’ve made a great blooper reel. But, as we auteurs like to say, that’s not the statement I was trying to make.
 
We wrapped at midnight. I crawled home so exhausted, you’d think I had run a marathon. My one day of directing was more grueling than driving an eight-hour NASCAR race. Or watching one.
 
I also gained a newfound respect for directors. (Except maybe for the guy who makes those Adam Sandler movies.) To do this kind of thing 60 days in a row? Most impressive.
 
Watching What I Had Filmed

Two days later, I watched my rough cut from the shoot (that’s movie lingo for the first, unfinished version of a film). Some of it was good. Some was so bad —  poorly-framed images, lighting mistakes, fluffed lines — that Repossession looked like it was shot by someone whose guide dog was helping him out.
 
Directing had been so arduous that the next week, when I again sat down at my desk, I nearly cried with relief. I subsequently wrote two humor pieces and sent 40 e-mails to magazines and websites pitching ideas.
 
The Lesson From My Career Shift That Wasn't

Directing had had a great unintended consequence. It turned out that I just needed a break from writing. And I was raring to go back to my real job again.
 
Still, there’s one thing about movies that does stay with me: They pay really well.
 
I may not be a director, but my dialogue is good. So, if anyone out there ever needs a screenwriter, I’m totally available. And if I can stay home, sit at my desk and write it? Believe me. I’m your man.
 
Peter Gerstenzang writes about rock, pop culture and humor for Esquire, Spin, MSN and Next Avenue