Welcome to Both Sides Now, a limited series in which the author discusses and reviews films which he participated in the making of. In honor of April Fools’ Day, this is the story of a movie that was never actually made. Some names have been changed.
The closest I have ever come to directing a feature film was in the fall of 2006. By the start of the fall semester, I had already written a feature script (and then trashed it for being terrible) and served as an intern for a state political campaign, and for the first time in my life, it seemed like girls might actually like me.
Few teenagers of the time could have asked for a better creative space than my high school, a venerable Catholic institution so destitute and mismanaged that by the start of junior year, the students were effectively running it– and, most agreed, doing a better job than the adults. For example, the administrative committee to rebrand and remodel the campus consisted of me and a few friends, with no input from the front office, and was a smashing success.
This was especially advantageous to the school’s burgeoning film club. Entirely self-funded and occupying a back office in an ancient stucco bungalow, megalomaniacs and potheads freely skipped class to watch movies all afternoon and then fight over who got to use the equipment for various proposed projects that never went anywhere. We got away with this because admin actually needed us to film sporting and social events, which helped forge the first good idea I ever had.
One afternoon in October, we all skipped class to film audition tapes for the Homecoming Queen. This being an all-boys’ school, the opportunity to not only interact with girls (students at our various sister schools) but girls who wanted to see us was enough to stop everyone fighting over proposals and actually get something done. At that, the knowledge that we, the film club, were the only guys allowed to talk to said girls on campus was such a preposterous ego boost that I somehow charmed our head cheerleader, a senior, into giving me her number.
At the time, the shoot seemed to take forever, though I now know it was a pretty efficient shoot. It meant staying late, but my friend Ferg had recently purchased a used BMW convertible, which spared me the usual labyrinthine hour-plus commute. As we shuddered up a nameless boulevard, pounded into gravel through decades of careful negligence, we passed a huge, colorfully-painted public school. Wishfully, I kept my eyes out for Elisa, a sophomore with whom I had been infatuated for the past year, and like clockwork she appeared on the roadside, in her trademark blue volleyball uniform.
My stomach twitched with embarrassment; embarrassment that I was so desperate to see her, and embarrassment that my raging hormones didn’t care that she had a boyfriend. Of all the girls I got to know on the bus in high school, she was easily the most attractive (in retrospect resembling a darker version of Lili Reinhart from Riverdale). But she was also an anomaly in my narrow existence, a ray of sunshine and cheer in an age, both personally and historically, when such positivity wasn’t credible. Even my neighbor Claire, who that same year started wearing vintage clothes from the 1960s in the apparent delusion that it would soon become fashionable, went to the School for the Arts. This may be why my crush was mercilessly mocked by anyone else who knew about it.
But my crush was irrelevant at this point. Her aesthetic fascinated me. I thought of Claire and her angular floral-print dresses. “Maybe they’re onto something,” I thought, as we drove on. And like that, Ricky Pirano was born.
I began writing that night. My parents gone for the evening, I imbibed Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool in the warm light of the house while images filled my head, unbidden, of the film to come. I pictured establishing shots of my house on a rainy night in black and white. The whole thing would be in black and white, my brain decided for me. It would be set in the early 1960s, of course, taking place mostly at my school in its purported golden age.
The story was at once convenient and convoluted: the titular Ricky is a student at my school and lives in my house. He dreams of becoming a filmmaker, lugging around a massive 16mm rig in the vain hope of putting anything at all on film. His latest idea is a World War II movie set in Italy, but, much like my colleagues in film club the previous year, his friends don’t want to help, so he writes a letter to an actress– think Natalie Wood– in the vain hope that she will agree to play the love interest and thus get everyone else on board, and miraculously it all happens. Within two weeks, I’d written 27 pages; within a month, 80; a process kept in line all the while by a team of friends on the afternoon bus whom I trusted from experience to be honest.
That my first true moment of inspiration resulted in such an eminently doable story was incredibly lucky. Luckier still that the story in the film also served as a convenient model for how to make it. To quote the Kaiser Chiefs, “if the girls start moving, the boys will join in,” and this seemed to be working. Not only did Elisa get on board for the actress role, I proposed that the picture headline a school film festival that included everyone’s work. But what really won over the film club over was a misunderstanding: in Ricky Pirano’s foibles, they saw not my own but that of the club president, who happened to also be named Ricky. The seniors, who had locked me out of the office every morning the previous year just for the satisfaction of knowing I couldn’t use their equipment, now welcomed me with open arms to take the piss out of one of their own, and to get it done, I wouldn’t dare stop them from thinking that was the plan.
By Thanksgiving, I set a date to begin principal photography. In a misguided effort to avoid hogging the spotlight, I tried hiring an underclassman who had just finished a decent-looking short, but there was no way it wouldn’t be my movie. The school film festival was open, the website was up.
And then, six days before the start of filming, my dad’s computer crashed. I didn’t have my own at the time, and though I had printed copies of the script, I couldn’t make more. My father, in a fit of rage typical of his Borderline Personality Disorder, accused me and my mother of conspiring to break it, before handing it off to an avowedly handy neighbor to be fixed. If that laptop didn’t come back restored by the weekend, the project was doomed. I never saw it again. Lost was an entire adolescence’s worth of writing and photographs, and whatever hard copies of Ricky Pirano were probably thrown out several years later when my father forced me to clean out my room (and then punished me for doing so) during a violent rampage.
What I have been able to recall of Ricky Pirano’s plot is based only on my memory of that time. I nearly forgot the whole ordeal, but years later, while looking over a collection of old calendar notes and emails, I rediscovered it and was amazed at how close I had come to directing a feature film in high school.
Ironically, this is exactly the fate that befalls Ricky Pirano in the movie. Failing to keep everyone interested in the movie, production halts, and he thinks he’s made a fool of himself in front of a woman he idolizes. But at the end, she writes a letter of her own, telling him that she will be there for him if he keeps following his dream. I couldn’t end the story with a success, because I had no idea what it would be like to succeed. And looking back, it’s a better ending either way.
As I’ve gotten older, my 17-year-old self seems more and more alien, but Ricky Pirano really does seem like that one good idea. It probably wouldn’t have been good, but only in the same manner as films like Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste: a failure of experience and of budget, but not of concept or passion; a failure to be proud of. And ultimately, popular culture proved my instincts well-founded. By graduation, it was a world of Mad Men and Vivian Girls and vintage dresses; the wave of the future belonged to the past.
But nobody could have known that at the end of 2006. The failure that did happen lost me credibility with the film club, who now all insisted (except for Ferg) that the movie was never going to be made in the first place. Winning them back necessitated not only coming up with a new idea and fast, but proving that I could complete a project without any help or any obvious platform to show it on; the seniors sure as shit weren’t going to sit patiently while I played them a DVD.
At the time I hung out a lot at Vroman’s, our local bookstore, and winter break meant spending all my time (and birthday money) there. There on the newsstand something caught my eye. It was Time magazine. They had chosen a person of the year.
I began writing that night.