I remember looking down through a sprinkling of Alice's teardrops left on the glass that covered Pat's open coffin. She was about Pat's age and lived across the street. Pat was an only child who lived two doors down and had come home very dead from Vietnam. He was nineteen. I was twelve. It was 1969.
This scene from my childhood has nothing explicitly to do with my film, Collaborator, but it haunted the process that brought the film into existence. Collaborator is not easily pegged in terms of genre or style. One festival programmer called it a "tragi-comedy." The producers and I have grown comfortable calling it a "hostage tragi-comedy." But at its core, seeping through the plot points, is a telling of the American experience from my point of view as a late boomer.
Writing is a product of our imagination and memory. This is a very hard thing to qualify. How much of our "selves" are composed of memory and how much are they the product of real time input? Our minds are racing, computing, inferring, referring, composing, reflecting, rejecting ten thousand times a minute, and all that an objective observer is privy to is the relative infinitesimal amount of public utterances, writings and other forms of "speech" we care to share with others. The things that we make -- a knitted scarf, a garden, a film -- are more formal, labored expressions emanating from this factory, but they are forms of "speech."
And are these not concrete "externalizations" of our internal processes of self-discovery and being? What loving new mother has not responded with near teary-eyed joy the first time her child approaches and says, "Look at what I made, mommy?" The mother has given birth to another human being who has returned the favor by offering up something unique from deep within her. The child's crayon masterpiece is an example of the transcendent experience inherent in the creative act. It has the potential to burst open hearts, break down barriers and transcend cultures. This is the tidal energy that pulls some of us into the arts. It's primal stuff. It's what makes us human.
For me, what establishes the mind as something forever beyond our complete understanding is the fact that we have infinite choices in what to think, say or do next. Depending on how your day is going this can either be exhilarating or debilitating. This goes on whether you're making Apocalypse Now or making a sandwich. The artistic process starts out with infinite possibilities, but in the interests of coherent communication three or four million sometimes gut-wrenching choices have to be made. So why did I make Collaborator and not a film about something else that interested me? I wanted desperately to make a film. But what film? Or, of all the films in my head, why make this one? And that's just the conceptual stage!
The film bears little resemblance to the first draft of the screenplay. I had a rough idea of the two main characters in mind and a plot point and that was about it. The rest emerged from that place of imagination, memory, choice and collaboration. The main characters in the film have been roughed up and the film makes oblique references to just about all of the major conflicts faced by boomers. Why did I write it that way? Well, because I'm fascinated by the personal vs. the political. But why does this subject fascinate me? Does a funeral I attended in sixth grade fully explain it? I could write a thousand pages on the subject and not come up with a satisfactory answer.
I am, however, of the strong conviction that life is a collaborative enterprise. It is our rejection of solidarity and the common good that could lead to the killing off of our species. After the film was completed, my producer Ted Hope suggested that we could do better than its working title, Longfellow. After pondering dozens of titles we settled on Collaborator. Our title now works for me on many levels. In addition to the relevance to the making of movies, Collaborator points to the unusual relationship between the hostage (the playwright Robert Longfellow, played by myself) and the hostage-taker (Gus, played by David Morse) as they work through their respective life problems and in a way "collaborate" on Robert's next play. It's a much better title than Longfellow.
So Collaborator is here. It's one that made it through. And now it's available for you -- the next step of this collaborative process of the movies. It remains a mystery to me why it emerged in this particular form. But I can tell you this. It began with a conversation between myself and that twelve-year-old kid eyeing a dead soldier.