Paying for my double cheeseburgers at one of the McDonald’s I frequent, the cashier, while handing me my receipt, says “Every time you come in here, you always have that notebook. Are you a teacher?”
I tap the notebook and tell her, no, I’m a writer, giving a kind of preoccupied smile.
“You write books?”
Which, of course, I do, but as she seems to be asking a specific question I say “A screenplay. I’m a filmmaker, too. Making a new film.”
She nods, interested, and asks me if I have made films before (“Yep”) and then “Anything I would have heard of?”
“Naw—nothing you would have heard of. But maybe one day, right?”
“I hope so.”
And it seems she wants to keep talking, but a line has formed, my burgers are out, and that is that.
I am not one to give advice, really, but the one bit I have related on more than one occasion about “how to be an artist, what to do” (why anyone asked me, who knows?) is something along the lines of: know what The Thing was that first made you daydream, and then do everything you can until you have gotten that exact Thing for yourself—whatever it is. Until you have that, nothing else matters—because to you Art has revealed its form—its personal form for you—and it is imperative to your nature that you inhabit just that: nothing else matters. There is some moment, some image, some absolute pure dream-making occurrence that you experienced and you need to replicate that possibility for someone else, with your soul attached, this time. Do things, anything, everything, as many things as it takes, until you have done That Thing. And then do it again—because if you’ve done it…what else is there to do?
When I was fourteen/fifteen years old, I saw what, in honest reflection, was the most important film of my life. There was some program (I want to say it was called Alive TV…but that I cannot with certainty) on my local PBS station—came on in the wee hours (after the Doctor Who and Red Dwarf re-runs, I seem to remember). This program, whatever it was called, just showed what seemed to me at the time entirely random short films—sometimes one film would be a whole episode, sometimes a series of shorts would play in succession. I only saw the program a total of three times, I think (if that) and other than this one film, I recall nothing of the content.
The film I am referring to is called The Salesman and Other Adventures. It was a hypnotism to me. It was perfection. And it (I have come to realize in the two decades since this viewing) influenced literally everything about my artistic aesthetic (from my novels to my films)—hell, I now realize all I have done is copy this film, unconsciously and in myriad derivations, and perhaps have never been original, at all.
For two decades (and I had only viewed it the once) I never forgot the title, the atmosphere, the flow—these things embedded themselves deeply in my sub-brain, lost specific cohesion (for I could not actually bring to mind specific images, circumstances it depicted); the feeling, the totality of it was rooted: it was a dream memory, absolute, remembered wholly without ever having to be considered, in particular.
I would bring it up, from time to time (“I once saw this short film called…” or “There was this one film, I don’t know anything about it…”) in conversation; it would flit in to my thoughts, here and there, but always in a vague way. I didn’t know that the way I wrote scenes could be traced to it. I didn’t know my entire sense of character and narrative, pacing, affect (in whatever form I wrote) was drawn from it. I didn’t know I was cribbing.
But I always knew I loved the film. And I considered it Mine.
It was my secret, a part of me I didn’t bellow about. As I got in to writing and then, recently, in to filmmaking, it was never mentioned as one of “those important movies” or one of the pieces of art “that changed everything for me.” No: I’d say Epidemic by von Trier or I’d say The Hitch Hiker by Ida Lupino or I’d say Polanski, Mike Nichols, I’d say Akerman, Sarah Polley, Driller Killer, Oleanna, Keane. But any time (and it was all the time) conversation came around to such things, the words The Salesman and Other Adventures would float behind my eyes. I never recommended it. Never looked it up. Maybe a few times I did ask someone “You ever see this thing—I think it’s called…?” and, without fail, the answer would be “Naw.”
I did not know until twenty years had passed and I had made five films of my own that it was written and directed by Hannah Weyer. That it was her NYU Thesis film. That it had won awards at Sundance, LoCarno, Melbourne, Clermont-Ferrand. And I never would have, if not for an idle moment, it in mind, having occasion to type the words of the title in to a search engine which sent me to YouTube where…there it was.
Exactly how I remembered it and didn’t.
Me. Everything I had ever done—only more. Everything I had ever wanted to do. Me.
If The Thing was you wanted to see your story in a random mystery mag on the newsstand at Safeway? Well, even if you are already on contract with W.W. Norton, don’t be satisfied until someone can find your story in a random mag, the shelf at a grocery store—and if you do it once, do it again, so that as many someones might flip through and see your story, there, before setting the mag back down, unbought. If The Thing is you wanted to see your film playing at some strip mall discount theatre? Then kill yourself until your film is there, playing the random, rainsour matinee, chance of someone sat in an otherwise empty theater, stale Coke and watching it, tinny sound in hard darkness—and then do it again, as many times for as many possible someones sitting alone having bought a ticket just for something to wait out the weather.
Sat to a table that McDonald’s, jotting a few notes about my just finished script, The Salesman and Other Adventures had crept in to my mind, again (or rather, it reminded me it lived there, I some sort of shell it housed itself in).
That cashier. That question. My answer.
“Anything I would have heard of?”
That film. My tiny television, two in the morning. Asking a friend:
“You ever hear of…?”
So close to the purest achievement; the groundwork, the reason, all of it there.
Me: “Maybe one day though, right?”
That cashier: “I hope so.”
Even if she is the only one—even if anyone is and twenty years later I still never know—I hope so, too.
PABLO D’STAIR is a writer and filmmaker. He writes and makes films.