Though both borrow from French Revival architectural style, no two buildings could be further apart in significance than Bancroft Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. One is where American naval officers are born, the other is where Hollywood legends go to die. Is it possible to go from one world to the other? I'm here to tell you that it's possible and, as The Last Ship premieres, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what it has been like to make the transition from Annapolis naval officer to Hollywood writer-producer.
Although The Last Ship is the fourth show that I've written on - it marks a mini-culmination of my journey because it was the first time that I had a chance to write about a world that I knew absolutely first hand. Hopefully, the first of many such occasions.
In retrospect, the transition from naval officer to producer and writer has been even tougher than I suspected it would be at the outset. Hollywood really is - as you've probably heard, a dog-eat-dog, marathon meal of crumbs just to get to the table where the real acts of creation occur.
Why did I come to Hollywood anyway? Outside of movies like Apocalypse Now, The Sand Pebbles and Lawrence of Arabia, the way Hollywood told military stories always seemed dull, cliché and horribly untrue. The entertainment machine treats the military mostly as an excuse for gunplay and explosions. I wanted to become a writer because I was ambitious to tell the sorts of stories that I always wanted to watch, but could never find. Human stories set in a Conradian world of the military where folks naturally operated in the borderlands. Certainly one with a set of ethical margins and pressures you won't find in the highlands of Pasadena. When I was living in Japan and bouncing out to sea around Southeast Asia and then living in the Sahara as a UN Peacekeeper, I started to feel the itch to write and make movies. There was scant modern literature to describe the carnival of humanity you find on a gutter tour of Asia. I wanted to try and that's why I've spent ten years producing and writing on various shows. I'm hoping that I'm learning the craft well enough and meeting the right people to enable me to bend some of this experience into art. So far, I haven't actually produced the kind of stuff I came here to make...but hey, I'm still here, belly to the table and ready to go.
How does somebody make the transition from the military to Hollywood? By the time I graduated from Annapolis, I pretty much knew that I was going to become a writer. I knew then that it would seem like a sort of impossible dream to my friends and family - but I was going to try. I told my ex-wife that there would be at least two years of rejection and poverty between leaving the military and getting my first tiny foothold as a writer. I don't think she believed that I was actually going to go through with it - leave a steady job in the Navy for a crazy pipe dream. In a way, I guess I was only able to make such a big transition because I was willing to suffer and let every other part of myself die except the desire to transform. To this day, I don't think most of my military buddies have any understanding of the financial and psychic swamp that I swam through to make it to the shore after I jumped ship. A few years into my new Hollywood life, I hit bottom. I was producing an indie film (LAURA SMILES) that had run out of money halfway through production - and so had I. I was deep in debt and down to my last five bucks. My cell phone was shut off and I didn't have the money to get it turned back on. That was truly a moment of despair. How can you be a producer of a movie when you don't even have enough money to eat or make a call? Fortunately, that low point was also the day that RKO Studio agreed to fully finance the film. I spent my last dollars on gas and cigarettes and drove into Century City to RKO's headquarters for planning meetings. I lunched on the trail mix in RKO's office kitchen until I could write myself a production check. Never been that low before or since, thank god.
Oh, the people you'll meet. I have a problem with people who say that everyone is fake in Hollywood. Actually, that may be true in "Hollywood" where you find plenty of tag-alongs and rich kids who say they are producing but are really just partying. But in the real world of making movies and TV I've found that the people who have actually given up everything to be there are hyper-real. For these people, the specter of failed dreams and psyche-death are always looming - any screw up can mean career suicide. When you are producing a movie with folks and you're all under this kind of pressure, you get a chance to see the true person - the bad and the good, the desperation and the grace. It's possible to go through life sloshing in the middle of the pool, never feeling the bottom - but not here. I've met some of the best people walking the earth in the entertainment business - happy warriors with good souls. I've also run into my share of crooks, charlatans and porn stars. Ron Jeremy did a fully-clothed "straight" cameo in the first movie that I produced and in my second movie, the director and I had to literally kidnap one of the other producers who had embezzled part of the film's budget. We grabbed the guy and told him that we were either taking him to the bank so that he could find our money or to the police so they could put him in jail.
You can't escape your past. Everyone in the entertainment industry is pegged and stereotyped. It's unavoidable for a lot of reasons that I won't go into but suffice to say that Hollywood is a stage and everyone is consigned to a role. This was initially a foreign concept to me because, as a naval officer, we were groomed to be jacks of all trades (or at least fake it). The Navy's idea is that one day they will have you driving ships and the next day they'll transfer you to work in the U.S. embassy in London. Not so in Hollywood. In fact, in some ways, Hollywood is more stove-piped than the military. One example is that it's almost impossible to go from being a drama writer to a comedy writer - you literally have to remake yourself to even try to transcend your place. If I show up to a meeting with studio executives as a "the navy guy" but am sporting a beard or shaggy hair, they tend to get confused. It's ironic but in some ways, the military is more forgiving of unorthodoxy than the creatives you meet in LA. Part of the reason for this is that folks in Hollywood are always on the edge - always wondering if they're going to keep their job this month and make their mortgage payment - and they just don't have the emotional energy to deal with aberrations from their expectations.
On Self-Promotion. One of the classic military values is humility - don't brag, demure praise. Unfortunately, this isn't something you can really do in Hollywood if you want to succeed. Shrinking violets aren't going to get the job or the money. When I took my first screenwriting class, I remember being constantly surprised and disgusted at how often the instructor worked his resume or name-drops into every conversation. But in hindsight, I forgive the poor bastard for his insecurity about folks knowing that he had value in the system. It's not like he could wear a uniform with ranks and medals to tell his story for him.
Best thing about serving in the military before coming? Besides general life experience that money can't buy, there's a long precedent of military service as an antecedent for great writing. There are some extraordinary vets creating TV shows and movies right now including Rod Lurie who created of Commander in Chief and wrote/directed The Contender. There's also Don Bellisario, who created the most watched TV show in the world right now, NCIS. There are many inspiring literary examples - Joseph Heller, James Salter, Heinlein, Pynchon, Tolstoy - and who can forget actor, writer and director, Clint Eastwood. (Bet that's the first sentence ever to include both Tolstoy and Eastwood.)
Worst thing about serving in the military before coming to Hollywood? Lost time. Because you come to the party late, there's less margin for error before aging out. You come to Hollywood without the network of friends who are producers or executives who can help you find work. And you can't just hang out and drink yourself around town when you should be honing your craft - hopefully getting good.
One of the draws of navy life is the romance - the chance to roam into the back corners of the earth under the auspice of duty and explore the tattered margins of civilization - and maybe get a glimpse of worlds about which most people know nothing. As an old British merchant seaman told me in Bermuda when I was midshipman - your job [as a young person] is to fill your boots up with life so that you have something to think about in the rocking chair when you're old. I have tried to do as the old sailor told me to do. I came back with some stories and should I get really lucky, I'll have the chance to write 'em all - and shoot some of them. Look out for shows/films about U.N. Peacekeepers in the Sahara, or expats in Asia and Europe, or sailboat racing in New England or even one about the banalities of staff work at the HQ of the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.
I'll wrap this for now with some gratefulness. I'm glad to be here and I'm definitely one of the lucky ones who have made it to the beach. In the meantime, enjoy The Last Ship and stay tuned for future installments of High Seas to Hollywood.