"Where does your heart lie, my brother?"
It couldn't have been a more ridiculous question in my mind, even if it hadn't be posed by a mid-fifties homeless book dealer to a scruffy, newly minted twenty-year old homeless film student in an Irish dive bar around the west 30's. It was January 24th, 2003, just over five weeks in my new rustic living situation, and this was how I was celebrating the official entering of a new decade. It was a bitterly cold night in what was shaping up to be a very snow and cold heavy winter (of course), and while I wasn't in the grandest celebratory mood, one look at Saul closing up his West 8th street book table and I had to make the invite.
He peered at me through rough lines tied up in a grey hoodie, swaddled in a dirty and worn grey coat; a look I'd soon end up adopting as my own uniform, also. We'd had a few conversations in passing; discussing some literary works I'd begun checking out while killing time or trying to stay warm in the school library. He'd recommend or let me borrow different works: poets, philosophers, novelists, but I'd to have any true one-on-one time with the person who would become a mentor and indoctrinate me into this world I was still unfamiliar with. I figured this would be as good a moment as any other and got him to agree to come have a drink or two with me. My treat.
His story was fascinating. A former English college professor at a respected university with friends, colleagues, a wife and a daughter who fell on hard times when he lost his position, couldn't find work, let his drinking problem spiral out of control and shoved his family and friends further and further away out of pride until one day it was like they simply didn't exist. He'd begun dealing out his collection of books out of a beat up Ford and that became his life for the last fifteen years. Daily ends meet met out in the crumpled wads of cash from NYU students looking for a deal on selected reading materials or curious browsers. He began a new world with a set of sharpened survival instincts. A new idea of "home".
Back in the dive Saul considered refreshed neat bourbon and asked again, "where does your heart lie?"
"It doesn't", I said without looking at him. "I'm pretty sure I don't have one or at Ieast I haven't formed one that would choose a particular place to lie."
He nodded and scoffed before sipping his drink. Saul often scoffed, snickered, sneered or jeered at any statement I'd make or question I'd answer. It was his abrasive version of the "silly rabbit" look. It was nothing compared to the guffaw upon first letting him know I was going to film school whilst bouncing around the streets. "Oh, you a movie star." That nickname would carry equal parts kick-in-the-shin and affection over the next year or two.
That night as we traded small talk and literature, things soon took a personal bent. My parents having always been more teachers by example or necessity, it was the first time anyone explained the idea of crossroads and intersections in life and how to gauge when and where to pick your path.
"Movie star, most people believe inevitable shit just happens to them and there isn't anything they can do about it. They don't see the signs for the roads or that they're always the one at the steering wheel. You don't even see that you're at an important one right now. It's not going to be the last one, but every choice we make ripples across our lives and sets us up for where the next off ramps and intersections are waiting. So, it's important before picking to ask yourself where your heart truly lies. Because once you pick? Then that's it. You don't hesitate; you don't try and look back or wander off into thoughts about 'what-maybe-mighta-coulda-been-so'. You move forward until a new opportunity to choose comes along."
A few more bourbons and we parted for the night. I was still firm in my position that I didn't have one or have much use for one. For the upcoming road I was taking, that I was already on, I only needed a soldier's resolve and focus, something more akin to what my father taught me in how to move forward when everything was continually coming at you. I didn't realize at that moment in time that he was telling me his own story, about how much he needed the people in his life that he shoved away during the last big crossroad of his life. It was a moral lesson I wouldn't get years later about how whatever path he chose, not sticking with those people was the only mistake he could have made. When its just you it’s always a lot easier to give up.
"Where does your heart lie?"
Thursday I start another new decade, and over the last ten years my 20's had been a very mad trek of winding roads and events full of cross roads and choices. I managed to eek out of the train station whilst working 1,000,001 jobs (with a few sojourns back). I'd been in a dozen bar fights and a "scruffy kat" a time or two. I danced on tables. I managed to graduate with a BFA in directing. I worked in ad agencies, post houses, and slept on people's couches and corners of floors. I learned my tricks and social mannerisms trying to pick up the girl across the bar at 2am. I backpacked my way through Europe and Asia, hitching rides on everything from trains, pirate ships, horses, gondolas and blistered feet. I designed an English language/SAT prep program and put together a feature film on 40 credit cards that was shot in 21 days with 190 locations. I took on every bank in the country during one of the roughest fiscal crisis of our time, giving my film up and disappearing off the grid for two years. I got lost in Lalaland, a gypsy-whore living with thirty or so misfit toys in a two story flop house in West Hollywood. I've been on PBS (just like Oscar the grouch). I made another film on a whim and coated in faith with some of the greatest people I've ever known under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. I've battled crazy actors, unions and the betrayal of close friends. I've dodged more bullets (financial and literal) than I can count and took my parable of spirituality and family on the road for the last six months. I have a collection of shiny trophies, plaques and awards that might be the majority of my nesting decorative sense. I have frequent insomnia-laden philosophical debates with a bodega guy over shitty coffee. I have a new sense of zen, peace, calm and closure to a journey that I never thought I would and came with a sensation so foreign it took me weeks to figure out what it really was.
"Where does your heart lie?"
Whenever I consider the path I've taken over the last few years and where it's lead me, I've been comforted and filled by looking around at the smiles of the souls I've met and brought along the road with me. I'm an Aquarius and a social creature, but I've been phenomenally blessed to have some of the most amazing individuals in my life as my nearest and dearest. I call them family: the people I work with, the people I've lived with, the people I play with and the people I create with. The people I fight for. They've been my strength and my fuel in the hardest times, and even when I've been in a leadership position, more times than not, I've learned so much from them. I've learned how to sacrifice and have faith. I've learned how to lose and say goodbye. I've learned how to pick myself up and stand up in the face of everything that is logical or clear cut and carve a new path out of will alone. I've learned how to love with a heart so full I felt like it would crack open my ribs and burst out of my chest. I learned how to make attachments to people, places, and things and build a sense of integrity I never thought I could as a cynical twenty-year old in an Irish midtown dive bar.
I am eternally grateful for them and how they've shaped who I've become. And it with that they've given me the final and best gift: they've showed me exactly where my heart lies.
"Where does your heart lie?"
There's a multitude of choices I could take at this very moment right now that would set up the next ten years of life and intersections. Some of them promise riches and success that would come so easily if I would alter a few things here or there. Figures have been popping up again, almost cyclically with the usual rigmarole:
"It's not about just telling stories with your friends, David." "You really should consider getting some name actors in your next project, David." "What is your next project? You should really think about something genre. Maybe a little action or horror, David?" "Think of the foreign markets, David..." “There’s too much character development, David!” "Don't you want to make MONEY, David?" "When are you going to grow up, David?" It doesn't work like that, David!" “All of that work and you’d just go and throw it away, David?!” "Why are you trying to be a martyr, David?" "You can't DO THIS, David!"
And so on, and so on, and so on...
"Where does your heart lie?"
Don't get me wrong; some of them are great people with the best intentions for me. Others are complete douche bag puppets that don't even know what they speak of beyond the choice "buzz words" they toss out. They have long nails that hang on coattails, live in closets and spend a lot more time talking about doing something than ever actually going out an doing something. They are beyond non-risk takers; they are liquid inertia and the first to change their tune if it services them. They pop-up at these intersections, whack-a-mole-fun house style the most frequent and most nasally of tone. It's only recently after this last set of roads that I see these people and things for what they really are. Reminders. They are the constant reminders of all that has come before and the choices I've made and why I took those paths to begin with. And I'm oddly grateful for them now, too...
You see, any other time, even when I chose to go the opposite directions, I'd still let the constant reverberation of their condensation and words sting me in some ways or dismay me. They just don't jar me like that anymore. Instead they flicker and light a fire in me. The same way the amazing people on my journey have informed who I am and shown me where my heart and my art (the same thing really) truly lie, these people have graciously given me the ultimate clarity.
I don't want that life. I don't want those roads. I don't want their path. It's not where my heart lies.
I want the ones that maybe take more effort, have more thorns and don't "pay out" as easily or at all, but that I'm proud to walk or, lets face it, drunkenly stumble along. I want the one that affects lives and creates change, or at least starts enough shit to get people talking. I want the one that turns head and makes people SO CURIOUS.
"I don't understand how you... how did you do that?" "Why did you? And it just...?"
I want the road that even in all its business and finagling still retains some of the purity of a toddler-David Spaltro doodling and sketching with used markers on notebook paper, just trying to create and tell stories. I want the road that treats people with respect and dignity, that is collaborative and full of limitless possibilities on what one can achieve, far removed from the glass ceilings that so many try to impose on us. I want the road that expects as much from us and we can from its final destination, wherever that may be.
I don't know if the long highway I'm on ends with a long and prosperous career as a filmmaker or director. Maybe at the end of the day I'll raise some sheep on a farm in Wyoming and that will be my ultimate bliss. We all know I'd rock some goddamn overalls and a straw hat, too... But for the next few years I know the road I choose to walk down is to finish a story I started telling ten years ago and continued with my two films. It's a project called "Wake-Up In New York" that I've been developing throughout the post-TIDU chaos of the last year. By finishing the script sometime in the next week or so I will begin the long haul to bringing to life. It's a love story that takes place on two coasts over ten years, and maybe the ultimate reflective piece on the journey I've been taking. Thematically it will be different then anything I've tried to do and creatively will involve things with special effects I've definitely never tried before at our budget. It will even have some action and a space ship (no, seriously), which, creatively, isn't even because somehow that would make it more marketable. It was always part of the story. But it's still going to have my heart, my soul, my blood, and (hopefully) some of my charm in it.
My producer, Lee Gillentine, jokes that the films we've made are their own genre entitled "fucked up people trying to do good things". There may be no better way to describe the core of the stories I've been passionate about telling because they reflect the very essence of who I am. I'm a fucked up person trying to do good. Doyle's journey to find a home and place in the world on his own, Violet's quest for meaning, faith and peace, and the upcoming Charlie and Maggie's journey of love, adulthood and reflection in the new film are all different places I've been in this city.
“Where does your heart lie?”
As for those who are going to be helping us bring this story to life, there's an amazingly versatile and talented actress who had a supporting role in "Things I Don't Understand", Lynn Justinger, and who's going to co-star in this film as the female lead. Every once and awhile, walking down all these crazy roads, you come across people and artists who really inspire you, and Lynn is someone who after having gotten to know and work with over the last few years represents that to the nth degree. Outside of her natural talents and abilities, I have a great admiration for who she is as a person, how much good she puts out into the world and how hard she works at her craft and dream. It's been a blessing to work with her attached to this project, because as I create this piece that will challenge and stretch her as much as it will challenge and stretch me, I know she's beyond capable for the task and carrying that responsibility. I have the utmost faith in her, beyond excited to work with her and tell this story that wrap-up this NYC trilogy. A year or two from now people, some of whom will be asking "where did you find her?", much like they have for many others I've had the pleasure to work with, the ultimate irony being she's been in front of their faces for years.
I'm going to be bringing back the whole family as much as I can. Passionate, talented and amazing people I've worked with on the films before and whom I've haven't had the pleasure. And I won't bail on any of them. I never have before and I don't intend to this time. Filmmaking can be a heartbreaking endeavor; in fact it's almost a guarantee as you ride the emotional roller coaster that is bringing any project to fruition over many years. A director is a leader and a leader is constantly faced with making difficult decisions or compromises, but I've learned enough over the years to know where that inevitable line in the sand is and what I'm willing to do to make something happen regardless of it. I will work, I will fight, I will bleed and I will persevere when the sand cloud settles. This time is no different. If anything it's firmer and I'm more disciplined in my resolve because of the two previous dances.
You'll be hearing more about all those names and the creation of this story over the next couple of months as we begin to move things along, much like I did with TIDU. But for now I have some work to finish, some TIDU thing to wrap up, a million dollars to raise, some moles to whack, some birthday bourbon to sip and a new film to make.
And now I'm going to dig my heals into the dirt and begin moving forward, one step at a time down this new road until I catch a stride, not looking back or questioning my choice once. I do this peacefully and with purpose and vigor because I know that even if I’m the one at the steering wheel, I'm not going down it alone. I'm surrounded by those are the greatest miracle I could ever be a part of the, the family that one more time is going to show you what passionate and beautiful storytelling is (dancing vaginas or no dancing vaginas). Because it's not something we do, it's something we are. And because my heart lies with my family and in telling stories, and that's what we're going to do at least one more time. And if twenty-nine was the "year of rebirth", then wait till you see what a David Spaltro in his 30's has up his sleeves...