This week the news dropped in the Hollywood trades that my team at ArieScope and I would be starting production on a television series called HOLLISTON. It’s a traditional sit-com (multi-camera, on a stage, with an audience laugh track) but best of all it’s a show created for FEARnet as their “first original production”. I know, right? How did that happen? FEARnet’s first original show… and it’s a sit-com?? Well, let’s back up and tell the whole story.
In 1991 I was in my junior year at Holliston High School. (When I say “let’s back up” I’m not kidding.) My high school was extraordinary because we were one of the few in the country that had its own radio station, WHHB. I was never really sure what the call letters stood for. Some said “We are Holliston High School Broadcasting” while others speculated it was “We Hamburger Herpes Boat.” I was fortunate enough through hard work and perseverance (and a lot of begging to Mr. Curboy, the teacher in charge of the radio station) to land an evening show called METALLIFIX that I hosted with two of my friends. We’d basically play all of the hair metal bands we were into at the time and then talk about all of the wicked important and extremely funny things that a group of teenagers would have to say when they think they have an audience. (Note: aside from our own parents and maybe a handful of friends… no one listened to METALLIFIX.) However, it was the fact that we only got two hours a week on the air that left me feeling like it wasn’t “real” enough of a show. I decided that the best way to fix that would be to have a morning show before school started. A time slot that no sane student would ever want in the first place. It required getting up around 5am every morning and being on air from 6am – 7:30am. I was joined by my friend Steve DeWitt who was my co-host and co-conspirator and we called the show COFFEE & DONUTS. For junior and senior year we did COFFEE & DONUTS before school, and because it was a time of day when no one really had anything going on save for waking up and getting ready for school… we found a captive audience. It took awhile, but eventually we had a good portion of the school setting their alarm clocks to WHHB so that they would wake up to our antics which included a lot of screaming, fake vomiting, depressing horoscopes, simulated cat skinning, and a segment we called “Stories on the Mad River with Dr. Rupert Collins” which quickly became our signature sketch. Steve would yell irreverent stories in a bad Scottish accent that never made any sense whatsoever… and people loved it. As far as student radio shows go, I’d go as far as to say that we had ourselves a “hit”. For many students, COFFEE & DONUTS became a part of their daily school routine and Steve and I worked our asses off at it. After school I had a number of responsibilities ranging from working at the town’s cable station, working my part-time job at a nearby drug store, playing in my band (VIGILANTE – we were about as good as the name sounds), partaking in the school plays, my night-time radio show, and more. As far as sports went the closest I ever came was being the “manager” of the soccer team. (I couldn’t catch a ball let alone kick one in a specific direction.) Point is I roughly slept about 4 hours a night- a trait that would continue for the rest of my life as I was soon to discover. But goddamn it I got the most a boy could get out of high school. I loved every minute of it. The friends I made growing up are still my best friends to this very day and are the people I’d choose to be with all of the time… if I could only bring myself to stop working for a few minutes. The guys and girls from my graduating class specifically were all amazing people. And while we’re at it, if you think I’m a success story from my age group in Holliston I ask that you look up athletes like Kara Wolters and Mike Grier as well as my close friend Shannon Pelkey- Sturtevant’s accomplishments with the space program. It’s kind of amazing.
Another key component to this pivotal time in my life was my first girlfriend- who for the sake of my more stalker-like fans not trying to track her down and invade her personal life I’ll simply call “Belle”. I couldn’t have been more in love with Belle. Even at such a young age (our parents had to drive us to the movies for our first date since we were still way too young to even think about driver’s licenses yet) I was convinced that Belle and I were going to last forever and that we’d live our lives in Holliston and have six hundred babies that hopefully looked more like her and less like me. COFFEE & DONUTS and Belle pretty much made up my childhood. They were the two key ingredients that would go on to shape my creative career in many ways.
Well high school ended and I had to say goodbye to COFFEE & DONUTS. Even though Belle and I were going to different colleges in different states, I knew we’d last. I remember when I first got to college, most every guy living in my dorm had a girlfriend back home…and by the end of the first month of school every one of those guys had cheated on or broken up with their girls back home. But not me. Belle and I were the ones who were gonna break the cliche and truly last forever. That was up until junior year of college when I got the “I think I need some space” phone call. (Note: comically enough we had nothing BUT space as we never got to see each other anyway.) We were growing up and things were changing and life needed to be lived. I guess to be honest though, it was her life that was changing as breaking up was the last thing I ever wanted to do. I took it badly. Actually, badly isn’t really even close enough to the appropriate word. I was devastated and spiraled into a several year depression that took a horrible toll on my body physically. No real point in getting any further into that stuff as most everyone has been there and knows what it feels like to go through your first heart break. But I guess when you’re a guy as passionate, loyal, and often times “dramatic” as I am (keep in mind we’re talking early 20′s here)… it was like dying.
So I get out of college and I get a job making really low budget local cable commercials at Time Warner Cable Advertising in Boston. Now if you’re a fan and you’ve watched all of the behind the scenes on things like HATCHET and listened to the commentary tracks- you already know the stories about all of this so I’ll try and be brief with this part. (No, really.) At Time Warner I met Will Barratt who as everyone knows by now has been my cinematographer and creative partner in crime at ArieScope for the better part of the last 15 years. Together we started “borrowing” the company’s equipment so that we could shoot our own short films and projects. This was all made due to our boss (and still the best boss I ever had) Peter. Though Peter had to wear the corporate shoes during office hours, he was a gifted filmmaker and story teller himself. He totally ‘got it’ and supported us doing what we were doing by sort of looking the other way when he could. Yes, at times we would push it way too far and need to have some sense slapped back into us (like when we hung the ArieScope logo on our office door… at Time Warner Cable… where we REALLY worked) but it was really because of Peter that the next few crucial steps even happened.
Will and I made a short film called COLUMBUS DAY WEEKEND (available here on this website in the “Halloween shorts” section) which though made just for fun and to show at an upcoming Halloween party wound up getting us attention in Hollywood. Is COLUMBUS DAY WEEKEND really that good? No. In fact, had we known that industry people would ever even be seeing it we never even would have MADE it. But that little silly short kind of started everything and so we still keep it displayed on the website as an amateur badge of honor for how it all began. As COLUMBUS DAY WEEKEND started getting passed around on VHS bootlegs (keep in mind, this was way before Youtube or common streaming video on-line in general) I got an email from a fellow Holliston graduate Jay Gassner who was (at the time) working as an assistant at United Talent Agency (one of the biggest and best agencies in Hollywood). While still learning the ropes and answering other people’s phones, Jay hip-pocketed me as a client and helped advise Will and I on our next steps; a feature length film.
COFFEE & DONUTS was shot in secret overnight shoots throughout the summer of 1999 using Time Warner Cable’s Beta-Cam SP camera and their three lights from the Arri light kit. Still really having no idea as to how to really write, the script was a whopping 160 odd pages written on a combination of both Word and scribbled hand-written note paper. (Note: most romantic comedies are kept to a tight 90-100 pages.) They say write what you know and that’s what I did. The movie was about two guys (“Adam” and “Steve”) trying to get their small town radio show into the big time… but even more so it was about “Adam” trying to get over the break-up with his high school girlfriend and move on with his life. Everything in the movie was drawn from real life experiences and Steve and I even played ourselves- along with our co-star “W. Axl Rose the cat”, my real cat who had been diagnosed by the vet as having “Feline Down’s Syndrome” (a-whole-nother story for another blog someday). We had no idea what we were doing. We just knew we wanted to do it. Friends were recruited to act in the film since we didn’t know any “real” actors and our crew consisted of just Will and I and about 4 or 5 other friends who had no desire to ever work in movies but thought it might be cool to help out on. Someone would plug in a light and literally get a “gaffer” credit. It was that amateur. All in, Will and I made COFFEE & DONUTS for $400.
If you search for it on Youtube you can still find the original COFFEE & DONUTS MOVIE TRAILER that we made for the film.
COFFEE & DONUTS (the little movie that could) wound up winning “best picture” in the Smoky Mountain Film Festival. Kind of like Sundance except not as cold and no one has ever heard of it. By 2000, the movie started to get some heat and by using it as my “writing, directing, and acting” sample, Jay (now a full-on agent) was able to sign me as an official client at UTA. In one of the toughest decisions I ever made, I packed up my car, said goodbye to my family and friends, and drove out to Los Angeles having no idea what I was going to do next. Steve actually made the drive out with me so that I wouldn’t have to do it alone and then he flew back to Massachusetts. An important thing to mention about Steve is that as much as I might be the guy from Holliston who ‘made it’ and the guy who has movies in theaters and a show coming to television… Steve was the most talented guy I grew up with. He could sing better, act better, and was overall the funniest and most fun person anyone could have the pleasure to be around. Though I’ll never know why, he just had no desire in pursuing performing for a career and as hard as I tried to get him to move out here and go for it- this just wasn’t for him. Ultimately he found (like anything he touched) that he had an amazing gift with photography and has been carving out a name for himself in that world. I’m proud.
Now before you ask, no we can’t sell or distribute the original movie COFFEE & DONUTS. Since we had no idea what we were doing we also had no regard for music or other copy-written rights. If we were to try and pay for all of the licensed music and logos and infringements in the film- well, we couldn’t afford it, let’s put it that way. However, I did play the movie for free in Los Angeles last Spring at the New Beverly Theater after a screening of FROZEN… so I guess you never know when I might decide to show it again… or where!
The next three years saw loads of struggle and disappointment as I did every odd job I could score in Hollywood and waited for something to pan out with C&D. Writer’s assistant jobs, PA positions on set, extra work, producer’s assistant jobs, a few random acting gigs that never went anywhere, I danced in the crowd in a J-Lo video (yes, you read correctly), some TV pilot writing jobs, stand-up comedy, and the key job to my survival- DJ’ing at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip. The “heavy metal hang out of Hollywood”, it was in the dark dingy DJ booth of the Rainbow where I wrote HATCHET and where I first met my beautiful wife and best friend in the entire world, Rileah.
All the while there would be various developments with COFFEE & DONUTS, but they would always wind up falling apart. Nowadays I know to always have many different projects going because chances are good most won’t come to fruition, but back then all of my eggs were in that one basket because it was my dream and what I believed in the most. Finally, with the help of Jay and my manager Helena Heyman who both also never gave up and were the real champions of the project, we wound up selling COFFEE & DONUTS as a TV show to UPN (remember that network?) in 2003. Disney/Touchstone was the studio behind it and Tom Shadyac’s Shady Acres were the producers. I was the writer and everyone was very blunt with me up front: “If this show actually gets shot, you cannot direct it and you will most definitely no longer be the star of it.” I understood as much as I wasn’t happy about it. But for the first time I actually got PAID! I was a paid writer! I was now a member of the WGA union! I had done it!
As fate would have it UPN wound up deciding not to shoot the show. Though at first I took it very personally, once I learned that UPN and the WB networks would be merging into the CW- I understood why. C&D was over and even worse, Disney/Touchstone would retain the rights to the story (my life) for the next 5 years. It was nothing personal, it’s just how this stuff works. It was during the time of writing C&D that I wrote HATCHET. Long story short, HATCHET got made, became a big success and my career swayed much more into the horror genre that I loved and much less with comedy. (However, if you ask me- HATCHET was very much a comedy just as much as it was a horror movie and that is why it worked.) Then came a string of studio writing assignments, a few more original TV pilots that I sold/wrote but never got shot, co-directing SPIRAL, producing GRACE, directing FROZEN, HATCHET 2, etc. I was now living the dream and making movies I loved, independently, and with my ArieScope family/crew that I remained loyal to with each step. (Note: Will has shot everything I’ve ever done to this very day.)
But in 2008, my friend Joe Lynch and I made five short films called THE ROAD TO FRIGHTFEST (available on this site in the TV & More section of SHORTS) as a gift to UK’s FrightFest festival. Essentially the shorts became signature FrightFest promos where they would play randomly once a night for the five nights of the festival. Joe and I acted in the shorts (as ourselves) and we parodied John Landis’ classic opening to Twilight Zone: The Movie. After the festival the shorts were put on-line and really blew up. It was great because they were gaining the festival huge awareness everywhere, but suddenly people were realizing that Joe and I actually could act. Who would have thought?
The next summer (2009) we started discussing doing COFFEE & DONUTS again for a new TV network who wanted to buy it, only this time I would be directing it and (once again) playing myself. The rights were once again mine, “Steve” had become “Joe”, the concept changed a bit, and actresses Laura Ortiz and Corri English were brought on board to play our girlfriends on the show. It looked like a go until there was a merger between Comcast and NBC/Universal and once again… the show was snuffed out. (Seeing a pattern here?) The difference this time was that I didn’t need the money and therefore knew better than to sign a contract and accept any payment. So when the show fell apart- the rights were still mine. I learned my lesson the first time around.
Which brings us to last October (2010). Peter Block (FROZEN’s producer) had just become the President of FEARnet. With FEARnet about to really start taking big steps forward as a contending cable network, Peter was the perfect guy to bring in to make it happen. His success rate back in his Lionsgate executive days was astounding (CABIN FEVER, SAW, THE DESCENT, OPEN WATER, so, so many more) and as an independent producer on his own he was also making things happen. Peter’s instincts are exceptional because he truly loves the genre and can think like the audience and not just as someone making safe and standard business decisions. He is innovative and thinks outside the box of what everyone else is doing. Most of all, he’s a real guy in a very un-real industry who like myself is loyal to the core. When we randomly sat down to catch up before the Reaper Awards at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel last Fall, I initially assumed it would just be two friends catching up as we had had a great time working together on FROZEN and had remained close ever since. When he first brought up the idea of doing a TV series and started running some of his own thoughts by me (one of which was to do some sort of show with me IN it) we quickly started brainstorming ideas that had us excited. I realized that night that if we re-invented COFFEE & DONUTS together and actually made it much closer to reality, lost some of what didn’t need to be there and came up with a lot of new stuff from real life, that we were on to something. Over the next few weeks of calls and emails what used to be COFFEE & DONUTS became something else that made much more sense. We forget all about the “two guys trying to make it in radio” angle and instead drew from my real life experiences struggling and chasing the dream to make horror movies. We pushed ourselves to go way more out there with the show. Should we add an imaginary friend in the closet? Why not! Should we make a sit-com with unpredictable gore moments and an audience laugh track? Of course! We wanted to make something that other networks would never make. Now I don’t want to spoil the show in the blog, but while we kept the whole “time of your life when nothing is going right” heart of C&D… our new show was just that. A new show. For the remainder of the year we called it BLOOD & GUTS, but then over the past few weeks as it started to really take shape (and most of all become REAL) we settled on a title that truly had us all excited: HOLLISTON. The name of the small town the characters are stuck in on the show. The setting for where these stories take place. But extra special for me… is that the title brings my personal journey full circle. HOLLISTON brings me back home.
Creatively I’m finally getting the chance to create what I set out to do and I am being given the opportunity to do it the right way with exactly the right people involved. Who knows what will happen? But I’m going to love every second of this journey however long it lasts. Right now (scattered across the country) there are a small handful of people who believed in an idea when we had nothing (our original “crew”/friends on C&D) cheering louder than anyone else. To everyone who had a part in this story thus far- thank you. To my cast/crew and new family at FEARnet – let’s do this.
And to W. Axl Rose the cat… thank you. I miss you. And I hope I do you proud.