By the late 1990’s, I was on a roll. I’d finally begun to land screenwriting jobs at studios. Soon, my first movie was produced. For next few years, I worked steadily. I got rid of my old car, took some very nice vacations and threw some kick-ass parties. For the first time in my life, caterers were cleaning up the mess instead of me. It was in many respects, quite a nice run. However something else happened during that time that I hadn’t expected. I experienced my first real bout of depression.
At first I chalked it up to the inherent disappointments that come along with being a screenwriter. Despite mostly rave reviews from my employers, the scripts I was writing were not getting made. In some cases the process of them “not getting made” went on for years. A dizzying parade of directors and movie stars came and went. Each personnel change required a new rewrite. My expectations ebbed and flowed. And so did my emotions. I knew that on some level I was successful. After all, I was working. The checks were coming in. That must mean something. But there was never any sense of completion. Each time I left one project to move on to the next, I felt like I was rowing away in a lifeboat, while a gigantic chunk of my time and talent was slowing sinking beneath the waves.
Soon, I had fewer and fewer ideas that I felt enthusiastic about. I began killing my offspring in the cradle. Why bother to even type them up, much less go out and pitch them. They probably wouldn’t sell. And if they did sell it would just result in another huge runaround. In the end there would be no movie. Plus, no one (not even the well-established producers I was now working with) seemed to know what they were doing. I started unconciously deflecting work.
Finally, my then-manager called and confronted me. “You’re depressed,” he said. “Get some help.” He suggested I see his acupuncturist; a very nice Chinese guy who stuck a few needles in me and sent me home with a bagful of scary-looking roots. I was instructed to boil them into a dark tea and keep drinking it for the next six months. I lasted about two days, largely because the tea tasted like it had been brewed from a tennis shoe. I looked for other options. I joined a church, and although I liked a lot of what they had to say, it didn’t exactly lighten my mood. I found a therapist, who asked if I wanted to kill myself. “Hell, no!” I replied. “I may hate my life, but I don’t want to end it.” She then sent me to a psychiatrist on the Westside who I basically liked, but had an annoying habit of playing his ponytail while we talked. He felt I was “mildly depressed” and suggested I try a course of Wellbutrin.
The Wellbutrin made me feeling like I’d had eight cups of espresso. I had lots of energy but zero focus. By the end of the first week, my house was cluttered with half-finished projects. I stayed on the drug for almost two years before finally realizing that it was not doing much for the core issue. Despite the fact that I was still steadily working, my life didn’t seem to have a lot of direction. I wrote checks to charities. I voted in every election. I over-tipped waiters. But somehow, my life felt rudderless. I was looking for a purpose; something I could latch onto.
That drive to "make something happen" led to a disastrous romance. When it derailed (in blindingly spectacular way) it shook me to my core. Coincidentally, just as my relationship ended, so did the wave I'd been riding professionally. Overnight, I was jobless and out of fashion. The money was gone and I didn’t have a clue what to do next. Then something very strange happened. I wrote and directed a short film. And that film (which became a hit on the festival circuit) gave me back something I had lost along the way: an audience. Suddenly, I was hearing people laugh at lines that I had actually written. It was like rain in the desert. It changed the course of my career and my life.
It’s funny what you can forget along the way. When I was twenty years-old, I sold everything I owned, hopped a Greyhound bus and headed for New York to pursue my dream of being a actor. Given that it was going to be a 48-hour bus ride, I decided I wanted something challenging to read. I picked up a copy of Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice and Other Stories” and settled into my slightly stained bus seat. I dug into the title story and (at age 20) was singularly unimpressed by it. The idea of some middle-aged dude becoming so obsessed with a beautiful kid that he dies from it, seemed sort of lame to me. But the next story in the collection, “Tonio Kruger” oddly drew me in.
Without going into all the details, it's basically the story of an artist who visits his childhood home and experiences an epiphany about the nature of talent. “Tonio” realizes that possessing talent means being born into this life blessed / cursed with these very sensitive antennae. Like a giant sponge, you walk around soaking up all the dreams and disappointments of virtually everyone you encounter. As another intimidating writer, Christopher Isherwood, once put it, you become “a camera,” a first-person witness to all this drama, but completely unable to affect its course in any way. Add that to your own life experience and before long, you become seriously overloaded by all this emotional weight. Eventually it starts to drag you down and you become, like Tonio, “melancholy.” According to Mr. Mann’s story, the artist’s only salvation lies in using that unwanted knowledge to create something -- a painting, a story, a piece of music, a performance. In short, by using it, you become free of it. And even more miraculously, if your art is any good, when an audience experiences it, they see or feel or hear a bit of their own story in it – and are freed of their emotional baggage as well. So it’s a win-win for everybody.
The “Tonio Kruger” method is the simplest, smartest recipe for mental health I’ve ever heard. And I had totally forgotten it. Writing a screenplay can be very lucrative and even fun, but in the end, a very small number of people will ultimately decide its fate (and about half of them you will never even meet). In the last three years, I’ve made a very conscious decision to make sure that in addition to writing for a living, I do a little writing for myself. Whether it is through this blog, magazine columns or through “spoken word” evenings, I make sure I get my voice (such as it is) out there. Like it or not, my sanity depends on hearing somebody laugh once in a while. Getting the occassional hostile email from a lunatic reader is good for me. Every once and a while, I need to throw a rock and hear a little glass break.
So whatever it is you do, Hollywood, get yourself out there and do it. Find that open mike. Tune up that guitar. Steal yourself some applause as often as you can. Heed my warning, fellow traveler; it is easy to sink beneath the sand. Believe me when I tell you it gets cold out there in the desert at night. Don’t let the fire go out.
Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv