Side Hustle: Screenwriter
Founder of Cambridge Screenwriters and Lehigh Valley Screenwriters
Boston is synonymous with the idea of ‘hotspot.’ Why should that be limited to technology and business? The creative arts should be, and I believe they are, thriving here, as well.
By Abigail Bliss
Jared Gordon, a side-hustling 80s kid, boasts a long list of creative pursuits, all revolving around one core obsession: movies. He’s written screenplays, filmed short films and features, acted in movies, and, most importantly, created communities enabling others to do the same. At a time when everyone with a smartphone has a movie studio in their pocket and platforms like Meetup make it easy to pinpoint and meet other “creatives,” Gordon has leveraged the democratization of creative opportunity. He is the founder of Cambridge Screenwriters and Lehigh Valley Screenwriters where emerging writers can workshop drafts and swap stories. His experience with filmmaking in Boston has left him unsurprised at Hollywood’s obsession with the city; Boston is a hub of innovation in the arts, as well. From his childhood interest in filmmaking to this day, Gordon has grappled with one singular question, and watched professors, expert screenwriters, and acting superstars do the same: Do we turn to movies to escape reality, or to see reality reflected, critiqued, and enhanced?
In our latest installment in the The Side-Hustle Series, I sat down with Gordon to tease out the answer to this career-spanning question and learn how technology has changed the film industry over the past decade. He also offers some pitfalls burgeoning screenwriters should aim to avoid, and his insight into what gives successful stories universal appeal.
Could you list your current pursuits for us?
Writer, college professor, Meetup founder and organizer, actor, writing consultant, blogger, and road tripper. How's that for a start?
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
When I was very, very young, my father had a whole collection of movies and it was pretty much sky's the limit. He used to say, ‘Watch whatever you want.’ Even with R-rated movies, he was very good about saying, ‘It's just trick photography. They're not really getting shot. They're not really falling off the building.’ So, I saw how that was done, and I thought to myself, ‘It's amazing that we can make it look like these things are happening when they’re not.’ He gave me the family video camera, and I was an only child, so on a rainy day, I had to be my own playmate. I had action figures. I had Play-Doh. I had micro machines. I had Jurassic Park dinosaurs. And, I would make films. Those were my actors. That was my movie studio. There'd be kind of cross-pollination; you'd have Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves action figures in a Jurassic Park situation.
In 2003, after I graduated college, I made my first feature, a mockumentary. Every year until 2006, I made another feature film. It was mostly low budget, independent stuff. In 2004, I made a romantic comedy, which was feature length (about 81 minutes). In 2005, I made this kind of family drama. In 2006, I made a total absurdist comedy film that was about an hour in length. Since then, I've been putting together a lot of short films. But the films that I've made, they're going to outlast me, and that's great. After they finish their festival runs, I put them all up for free on Vimeo because if they just sit on my hard drive, nobody's going to see them. I'm focusing primarily on writing nowadays, as opposed to going through the entire process.
You've created a several communities of writers across Meetup and within classrooms. What needs do these groups fulfill? What role does community play in the creative process?
I'm a big believer in the workshop model when it comes to making anything creative. I went to grad school at Hollins University down in Roanoke, Virginia, and we would bring in ten pages of a screenplay, and there'd be about a dozen of us – a professor and fellow students – and we'd sit around the table and read each other's scripts, and we'd comment on them. That's exactly how I run my Meetup – with actionable comments to go home with. That's exactly the spirit that I wanted to bring to Cambridge Screenwriters and to Lehigh Valley Screenwriters.
Ideas piggyback off each other. Especially with regards to filmmaking, it's never a solitary pursuit, and there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and everybody's goal is the same. We don’t see each other as competitors; we see each other as colleagues. We all want each other's work to succeed in the industry, and we're helping each other do that right then and there.
Also, I like to get a whole group of creatives together so that a lot of different people can claim credit for the product of their work. I don't only want my name on something; I want a lot of people's names on the finished product, so that they can turn around and say, ‘I was the editor on this. I was cinematographer on this. I was grip on this. I was production assistant on that.’ If it goes well, we all benefit as a result.
What’s one project of which you’re especially proud?
In 2005, I made a film that's still particularly resonant. It's about a young man in his early-to-mid-twenties who's working a dead-end job, and he's in a dead-end relationship. He sees his life becoming basically inherently predictable for the rest of his life, day in and day out, nine to five: get married, have kids, retire, and die. All that changes one day when he receives an anonymous, handwritten letter telling him that in less than a week, he's going to be dead. He doesn't know who wrote it. He doesn't know whether or not to take it seriously. But, it inspires him to kick-start his life, to create the life that he wants.
You've been making movies for a while. How has technology changed the practice since you first began?
The biggest tech development? This guy right here [he pulls out his cell phone]. Steve Jobs called it the ‘democratization of technology.’ In, say, the early 1980s, to make a film you had to have money for the camera and to pay for the film. When I taught film production at Emerson, my students would buy rolls of sixteen-millimeter film, and even with the student discount, it still came to over $100 for a roll of film. And, 100 feet of film was about eleven minutes. On one hand, it's good to learn like that because every shot has to count. You can literally hear the money rolling through the camera. It helps to shoot with a film mindset, as if your resources are limited, because it forces you to be creative and exacting.
Now, if you have a smart phone in your pocket, you can make a feature film. You can film on it. You can edit on it. You can put visual effects on it. This is a movie studio in your pocket. Everyone can be a content creator now. We’ve put technology in the hands of people who never would have otherwise considered becoming writers, becoming directors, becoming editors, becoming storytellers. The best part is that it is far easier to reach out to people who share that same passion. There's now less and less of an excuse to not be creative if you want to be creative, and that's a wonderful thing.
You also judge screenwriting competitions. Are there any mistakes common among beginning screenwriters?
One of the biggest differences between an amateur and a professional is in the understanding that your first draft is going to be awful, no matter what. I don't care if you're a novelist, poet, short story writer, or filmmaker… your first draft is not going to be great. I had a professor in grad school who said, ‘Your first draft is your barf draft.’ Just get the story out. Then focus on moving things around. David Koepp, a very successful screenwriter – he adapted Jurassic Park – has said that he’s only successful because he can tolerate cranking out seventeen drafts.
Sometimes it helps to bring in an external editor and sometimes, a writer's group. I do both. I get a screenplay as good as I can possibly get it, and then I put it in front of other people and I say, ‘I want you to rip this apart.’ Pride has to be put aside.
You're also an actor. Where can people look for you in popular films?
In Ghostbusters, I’m selling merchandise at a rock concert. You can see me very clearly in The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. There's a scene towards the end of the film where there's a funeral, and I’m walking out of a church arm-in-arm with this older woman. In Black Mass, another funeral scene. I guess it's both funny and sad, but you need a group of people for a funeral!
A lot of Hollywood films continue to be shot in Boston. What do you think is attractive about the city?
The tax break, I'm sure, is a big help. Also, I think people here are very collaborative and creative. With Harvard, MIT, BC, and BU, there are a lot of really hip, creative hotspots where people are constantly thinking of the next big idea. Boston is synonymous with the idea of ‘hotspot.’ Why should that be limited to technology and business? The creative arts should be, and I believe they are, thriving here, as well.
Also, in many ways, Boston’s a more manageable city than New York, for example; it's easy to get from big buildings to pastoral countryside here very, very quickly. Massachusetts has a very tight geographic radius.
What roles do movies play in society today? Are viewers turning to movies to escape from society or see it reflected and critiqued?
When I was an undergrad, the actor Richard Dreyfuss came in and spoke to us about just that. He said, ‘When I go to movies, I like escapism. I see it like seeing sword and sorcery. I like being taken away,’ as opposed to a film about suburban angst. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in late 2001, just a few months after September 11, and people were saying, ‘This is the film that we need now.’ It’s one where it’s very easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys.
The best films, whether or not they're about swords and sorcery, are about truth. American Beauty, which is one of my favorite films, for example, is set in a dystopian suburbia, and it's about suburban people with suburban problems, but it's a very honest story. Stories like that are both intimate and universal; ideas of loss and death and love aren’t just American. They’re Chinese. They’re Polish. They’re Indian. They’re Australian.
The best stories also tell us as much about the storyteller as they do about ourselves. Take Lord of the Rings, for example. Tolkien was very concerned with the horizontal industrialization in England and how it was gobbling up the countryside; in Lord of the Rings, the antagonists are all about tearing down the trees and laying waste to the countryside, and the good guys, the Hobbits, happen to love the green spaces and the rolling hills. It’s not an accident at all.
Which contemporary screenwriters inspire you?
I'm a big fan of Christopher Nolan. I think he gives a lot of credit to his audience. Aaron Sorkin. Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty and was the executive producer behind Six Feet Under and True Blood are also inspiring. I love the way that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are adapting Game of Thrones. Of course, going old school, Preston Sturges’ films are well-oiled machines.
Beyond screenwriters, who do you turn to to make sense of what's happening today in our country?
I love Louise Erdrich, who wrote The Beet Queen and Love Medicine. It would take me twenty years to write a sentence as beautifully as she writes a sentence. She focuses on Native American issues and reservation life, but her work is universal in so much that these are people who are struggling and wanting something better for themselves and their families.
Are you working on something right now?
Always, always, always. I have two feature scripts that I sent off to a bunch of film festival competitions. One is called Heels Over Head. It's an absurdist comedy. The other is The Storm King, which is based on a little bit of Scottish folklore. The main character is a reluctant successor to a leadership position in her small community off the coast of Scotland. I'm also about mid-way through a half-hour comedy pilot about this young woman who wakes up one morning in Brooklyn, and her life can go one of three ways. The pilot walks through each of those branches, each way in which her life could go.