The Gravity of a Dream: Making Fifty Million

Finally, finally, finally I had found the thing: film school. I would be a filmmaker. It would be the thing that would make me. I thought this when I was in eleventh grade. That was 1989. See, I was to be thinking about where I would and wanted to go to college. That was what we (the people that I knew in Richmond, Va.) did: go to college. It was ‘big’ in my family. My father had gotten a full ride scholarship for college. He was an A student who would become very upset if he got a B. I never even got a B. I got C’s at best. I did get A’s in Art class and photography. But I didn’t care about that shit. I wanted to do what would make me stand out and what would make me look cool. So I did things: vandalized, lifted weights, played football, did photography, acted out full movies like Full Metal Jacket and The Shining and Vacation and Fletch for my friends and family. I never did my homework. I would sit at my home desk and read Fangoria magazine. So when I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to go to NYU film school so I could not only live in New York, my dream town, but I could be like my hero: Martin Scorsese. I had seen his film Taxi Driver (which today is the all time champion John Miller favorite movie) about a year previous. My mother listened to me and she took me seriously. She also knew the price of NYU film school. So she kind of chuckled and said, “no.” So when I miraculously was accepted into a good state school, Mary Washington College, she said I was going there. Damn! Oh well. So there I became an actor, an obsessive actor. Now I had to be like me new heroes: Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.

I moved to New York after college and dove in to the acting life: submissions, auditions, off- off-off-off Broadway plays, showcases, student films, digital shorts, a few full-length feature films, a couple commercials. I had it made man. I was caught up in a long whirlwind of convincing myself that I was on the right track to success. People around me had me convinced as well. Fellow actors would compliment me all the time by telling me how awesome I was, how I had this incredible energy, blah blah blah, yet every once in a while I hear little jabs (I thought) like I wasn’t “dedicated enough” or I wasn’t clear about “what I wanted.” Fuck you! Something was off. I knew one thing: I hated actors. I hated talking about acting. I believed acting was not an art form. It was just you on-stage or in front of a camera doing what you should do to tell the story and make it compelling. That’s not art. You’re not creating anything. The writer has already created it. So I floated in this acting whirlwind in a mental conflict. I just wanted to score a job so I could rise above the mundane world of being an actor. I wanted to be in the stories that I thought were awesome. Easy, right?

I think I’m also an opportunist. If I see something that I can latch onto and take advantage of, I do it. So when my new friends at my then current restaurant job brought a script to me, it became mine. They wanted me to be a part of this, so I felt I had some power. I could criticize it, bat around which roles I could play, bat around whether of not I could re-write it, whatever. So one week in the winter I was typing away a re-write of this script. For the first time, I had a screenplay in front of me, that I was shaping my own way. I felt I was now a screenwriter. But I was the only one who really felt this way. Since I’m an only-child, I have a way of believing the world revolves around me, and everyone thinks as I do. Yes, I’m wrong. So my re-write didn’t mean much. My friend, Pete, said that we had to make something small and comedic now. My other friend, Vinny, also believed this. Fine. Their idea was to capitalize on his uncanny impersonation of Al Pacino in Scarface. I think I can do a mean Pacino in Heat. The story would be two Al Pacino characters fighting over a script. I thought it was brilliant. I could see it already.

We got to work in our own separate ways. Quickly, we felt our dynamics of opinion, choice, objective, goals, etc. Are all filmmakers such selfish assholes, as we seemed right away? Is that even the case? No, we were just experiencing the difficult decisions that are part of film production. Should we form a company? Do we need insurance? Who’s going to get the union contract? Do we even need it? Where are we going to shoot it? How well should we impersonate Al Pacino? We were constantly telling each other how it should be. Of us three, I was the most passive. I would sit back and let Vinny and Pete argue because I felt I was more talented and intelligent than both of them and whatever they were bickering about, I didn’t need to be involved. Ultimately, my attitude would get me into my own sense of trouble but for then, it was right.

I wrote the script after Vinny gave me an initial script/outline. It was my script and my story. I wanted that control. But I just couldn’t admit that they were responsible for it. I was no longer playing Al Pacino. Christopher Walken became my character. “Great,” I thought, “Christopher Walken again. Everyone’s seen me do this. Big deal.” So I didn’t need to rehearse. As I’m writing this I’m realizing how quickly I tend to indulge myself and that is what I’m hoping to demonstrate by this piece.

On the shooting day, I got my wife, Ellen, to join us. I know she likes to help out and be a part of things like productions. She made food and also videotaped us as we shot. I thought she could be like Eleanor Coppola who shot her husband, Francis Coppola, when he made one of my other top three favorite movies, Apocalypse Now. Her footage was made into the documentary, Hearts of Darkness. And thank God I got Ellen to do this. The shoot was a wonderful mess. With our level of disorganization and Peter and Vinny’s different work ethics and production ideas, the one simple day of shooting a simple, silly story that should’ve been very easy to shoot became very chaotic and stressful. Ellen (and my friend, Ronnie, and I) captured this on video. At the end of the day, I didn’t think too much about that footage. I wanted to make the movie we shot. It was time to watch the one daily and put it together.

At the time, I didn’t know how to use the editing program, Final Cut Pro, but one of my friends got me the program. It looked like airplane controls on my computer screen. So Pete took the footage to someone else for editing. I had made a rough assemblage of how it should be timed on imovie, which is a very limited editing program. The cut that the Pete’s editor made was unsatisfactory. He didn’t get it, I thought. I wrote this thing, so I knew how it should be told. So I taught myself the program and after several months, I had the final version that I could show the world. I uploaded it to youtube and and people could watch and vote if it was funny or not. People liked it. Excellent. Okay guys, time to move on and get back to real filmmaking.

We were unfocused and disagreeable with each other. We had a company that we had dropped hundreds of dollars into for nothing. We all wanted different things. Vinny and Pete started to fight and not like each other to a high degree. I started doing separate projects with each of them and I made sure and felt like I was clearly the ‘real’ filmmaker of the group. I loved feeling like I could lasso them into my ideas. They gave me the confidence and ambition that I needed. I needed them in order to work. I love working by myself but I know I need encouragement from others to make it happen.

Pete wanted to do “high concept” projects. I’m not positive what that meant, but he knew incorporating the mania of our little company into projects would be great. I agreed. Vinny did too, but not with the same belief. Pete had said much earlier that we should use the behind the scenes footage for the website that we made. That seemed all right, but why not take that and make a documentary with it? There was gold on that tape, and on the tapes of the movie footage. Pete had told our cameraman to keep the tape rolling between most of the takes and we caught Vinny’s true nature. Vinny is an incredible person. He exists on a level of being that he believes will generate artistic success. He can be an impossible person to deal with but he’s amazing to watch. And we had it on tape. Pete and I decided that we should make a documentary that focused purely on Vinny but was rooted in the making of our short film. I had the all the equipment at this point, so I decided I was to direct. I was also going to shoot. And edit. I made this my project. This was going to be my first feature length film. I had made one short film with Pete that last fall but this would be the big one. I would sell this and make a million dollars. I could then finance (and own, therefore being the director and star of) our original script, “Only Children.” I had the gold. All I had to do was present it right. My thought was to construct it like Hearts of Darkness and another documentary, American Movie: The Making of Northwestern, which I also adored. We were like the failed filmmaker in American Movie. We were delusional like him. Pete and I felt if we had the courage “to expose” ourselves, that would make us stand out and silently, I thought as I assumed he did, we would become stars and our lives would be set. I also thought we should act as if our film was a famous, successful movie and we were now stars who were reflecting back on the experience of the real footage.

So again, we got to work; or I did. I started setting up interviews with everyone that was there on that shooting day. I also shot myself. And just like this piece, I easily fell into a mode of self-indulgent ranting about how great and talented I am. I knew this would be funny because people had always laughed (comfortably or not) when I do this. I also used that personal interview to speak my mind about my difficulties with Vinny and Peter. My idea of imposing the successful circumstances on us as filmmakers failed. No one was believable. I did not direct them well. I had just assumed everyone could act this circumstance. I was wrong and it was my fault, completely. I scrapped that idea and went ahead and shot everyone for real. I just let them talk.

For the next nine months I edited and shot and showed the footage assembled together and had to endure the excitement and pain of other people’s opinions and reactions. But I loved it. I had the project in front of me. I controlled it. Through editing I could manipulate what people were meaning to say and I could make them appear great or stupid or horrible. But I also had to tell a single story. That was the most difficult part. Everyone kept telling me how to tell the story, so I felt I must have been doing something wrong. “Why don’t they get it?” I thought. I didn’t understand why they didn’t think it was completely brilliant. So I kept changing things, cutting clips, adding clips, adding text, and music. My living room had become an editing suite. My wife was forced to live in an obstacle course. I’m writing this the day after it showed at a film festival to which she did not attend. The rest of her family was there and I joked with them that the whole experience was too painful for her to relive. She says that’s not true. I’d like to believe it is because it sounds dramatic.

Ultimately, I think the movie failed. It’s not brilliant. The story is not compelling. It’s entertaining at times but overall, it didn’t work. I assumed that an audience would get the joke that this movie was a feature length making of an non-famous, cheap, poorly made short. As subtle as I thought I was, I think it’s too obvious, so the joke fails. Maybe I should’ve just made a straight forward making of documentary without imposing anything on it. But then maybe the story still isn’t that interesting. Pete and I wanted it to be interesting. We assumed it was. Vinny didn’t know or care. He just liked that we were making an unusual feature length movie. That pleased him. What he didn’t like was that we make him look bad, or so he thought. Almost everyone believes he is the most interesting character in the film. I guess the most interesting is least aware why.

It’s twenty-one years after that I said I wanted to be a filmmaker. I haven’t been to even one class on filmmaking, and that probably a major fault of mine. I always think to myself that I know what I’m doing but around other filmmakers who have been to film school and have actually shot something on film, I’m completely intimidated and scared. I do realize there are certain steps I must take to achieve my goals and hopefully I will take them. But I look at this project as the story of my life. I don’t really show my life story, but it’s a huge timeline of a journey to be a movie star. That’s an embarrassing thing for me to admit, but “Making Fifty Million” is a summation of what I’ve achieved in my acting and filmmaking career. Right and wrong steps led me to this point. All I think I can do is move forward and continue learning and making what I want. I could be wrong, but I don’t want to be.

John Miller, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, moved to New York after studying theater at North Carolina School of the Arts and Mary Washington College. Acted in Off-Broadway theater (including playing Dr. Robert in America’s Most Wanted, Peter Braunstein’s play, Andie and Edie), film, and commercials and after forming Hossboss Productions with two friends, he is now obsessed with directing his own projects. Making Fifty Million is his feature debut which he also produced, shot, and edited while recovering from an injury he sustained at Buddakan Restaurant. His next production, Afterlife Law, is to be released next year.