Above is a song by my friend and role model Jonah Matranga. Listen to it. I’ll wait.
Okay. More on him in a bit
As child I had the usual dreams about what I wanted to do when I grew up. Police officer. Fighter Pilot. Archeologist.
Then I learned the police academy wasn’t nearly as much fun as the movies that bore its name, that my nearsightedness meant I could never be Maverick, and that real archeologists don’t carry whips and fight Nazis.
In the third grade, my teacher told me I was going to be a writer. That ended up being the one that stuck. That piece of advice given to an 8 or 9 year old boy set the course for the next 30 years of his life. For a decade I wanted to be a novelist; after that, a screenwriter and filmmaker. I never considered studying anything else but writing and movies. I never had a fall back. I didn’t go get a safety degree that I could use to pay the bills while I tried get my writing career off the ground. I, naively and some would say foolishly, went all in on this dream. Sometimes I wonder if I should have taken the route some of my friends took: getting an advanced degree that assured them a job and attempt to launch a writing career in concert with their 9 to 5 obligations.
I admire them for doing that. But that’s not me. I have no other skills. Even if I had gotten into Georgia Tech like so many of my friends, which I did not, I don’t have any feel for things like engineering and science. John McGuire builds roads and plans cities. Another friend makes robots; one has risen through the ranks of one of the world’s biggest and most important companies. They have real jobs, like real men, and while I respect and sometimes envy them, I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I married a brilliant woman who is a bio-organic chemist. She loves chemistry and is very good at her job, but still, even after going through enough school to acquire a PHD, her profession is not what defines her. When she gets home she does her best to leave her work at work. It took me years to understand that. I am a writer 24/7. It’s who I am. It is my profession and my hobby and my identity.
I had big dreams. Still have them. I still want to write and direct major motion pictures. A few best-selling novels. I want to be admired and accepted by others. I want to be known: not famous, but known. I want kids, 22 year old writers or film geeks, running up to me like I once ran up to Wes Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. I want to run my own TV show. I want to win an Oscar, a Hugo, an Emmy, and eventually a lifetime achievement award from the Academy.
I want to be great.
None of that has happened yet, but I haven’t given up. But a recent piece of news (which I will not get into) has made me doubt. Made me think about giving up, walking away. Part of me knows I’m never going to reach the heights I dream about. Part of me knows I’m not going to be Martin Scorsese or George R.R. Martin. I look at things happening today, to people in my age group, and think I missed my chance. Drew Goddard is writing a Daredevil series for Netflix: that should have been me. JJ Abrahms shouldn’t be doing the new Star Wars, I should. They’re making a movie about hip-hop legends N.W.A.; I’ve had that idea for years, just ask any of my friends. Joe Wright is making yet another live-action Peter Pan movie, which was for a long time my dream project. Bill Hader, who was the first friend I made upon moving to Los Angeles 15 years ago, is now a TV and movie star. I used to get drunk with him and watch Evil Dead movies all night and now he’s in movies with Tom Cruise and Larry David.
Sometimes thinking about this stuff really gets to me. Fucks with my head. Makes me feel like a loser, a failure.
And then something like this happens:
And it buoys me. Takes my head out my ass. Because all I really want to do is reach people, talk to them, move them. And here are these young people (this is just a small sample) proving that I have done that with the one tiny movie I wrote. It is not a large group of people, although it feels like it to me, given the fact that Dakota Skye never had a theatrical release, never got any press, and has had to rely simply on word-of-mouth to get anyone to watch it. But to the people (mostly young women, to be completely honest) who have found it and embraced it, it is very important. It is a big deal. They see Ian and Eileen as movie stars. They seek out the music. And they do things like this, which brings me back to Jonah Matranga and the idea of Living Small:
Jonah Matranga is a rock star. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, even him. Especially him. He was (and sometimes still is) the lead singer and songwriter of the band Far. Far is one of my favorite bands to ever put music to tape. When they were around, I never missed a chance to see them live and they never disappointed. Their two major albums, Tin Cans with Strings to You and Water & Solutions are legendary pieces of Sacramento emo or screamo or whatever-o rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t define them. They’re just Far. They are two of my most beloved records, those go-to-anytime pieces of music that never cease to entertain, stir, rock, and inspire me.
But Far never reached full-blown mainstream success. I don’t know if they really came even close. But for those of us who knew them, loved them, followed them, Jonah, Shaun, John, and Chris may as well have been John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
After Far broke up, Jonah began recording solo work under the name Onelinedrawing, had two brief stints with the bands New End Original and Gratitude, and then went back to solo work, this time recording under his name. It was at a Onelinedrawing show that the story for Dakota Skye came to me. The whole thing. In a rush. Three songs in particular are responsible for me writing the screenplay:
1) Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away) – my favorite song by my favorite band, Deftones, who are friends of Jonah and Far. Early in the show Jonah played a stripped down cover of it and it send my mind aflutter. The song doesn’t really have a traditional chorus, but it ends with the repeated line “Drive. I don’t care where. Just far away.” If you go back and watch the movie, look for those exact words. I totally stole them. “Be Quiet and Drive” is the unofficial theme song of Dakota Skye and would have been in the film if we could have afforded it.
2) Crush on Everyone – A Onelinedrawing song that is one of the most beautiful, simple expressions of infatuation I have ever heard.
3) My List – A song written by punk legend Kevin Seconds (who was also on the bill that night) that Jonah turned into a beautiful ballad (as opposed to the awesome two-minute original punk version), with backing vocals by Kevin’s wife Allyson.
It’s hard to explain, but I was both fully immersed in the concert AND writing a movie in my head at the same time. So many things from that night ended up informing the film: the character names of Kevin and Jonah (fictional Jonah’s last name, Moreno, is taken from Chino Moreno, lead singer of Deftones and my #1 man crush), the feeling I had that night, the fact that the original title of the film was Far, and, obviously, the music. It thrills me to no end that two of the three songs listed above ended up in the final film. I always hoped they would be, but never thought we could make it happen.
The thing I admire most about Jonah Matranga is his attitude about making things. He has run the gamut in music, from releasing albums on a major label to recording songs alone in his house on his computer, from playing big(ish) rock shows to playing quiet, intimate shows in fans’ homes. His post-Far DIY spirit has been a wonder to me. I’m sure he gets frustrated at times. I’m sure he gets angry. I know he does. I’m sure sometimes he wishes he was Mick Jagger or Bono. He loves making music and loves playing music for people and why wouldn’t he want as many people as possible to hear him? But he seems to understand something that has taken me a long time to come to:
If your art touches just one person, it was worth it. Maybe not financially, maybe not by society’s benchmarks for success, but because it did what you wanted it to. If you get into art to make money, you made the wrong choice. It’s very very hard to get anyone to pay you to write or paint or play music. If those things come, great. You’re one of the lucky ones. And while I still strive for and need to make money creating things, that is not where the joy or motivation comes from. It comes from touching that one person.
Every time I’ve spoken to Jonah, he’s been nothing but kind to me. Early on as a sweaty fanboy after a Far show. Later, as some guy coming and asking to use some of his music in a little movie…for no money. And more recently as a peer, if not a friend, who now lives only about fifteen minutes from me. He is a good man. Sometimes I feel a little conflict in him, but show me a man who isn’t conflicted about something and I’ll show you a dullard without curiosity or passion.
Chances are, unless your name is John or Egg or had something to do with Dakota Skye, you’ve never heard of Far or Jonah Matranga. But believe me when I say he’s touched a lot of people with his music and spirit and will continue to do so. And to me, he will always be one of the biggest rock stars that ever lived.
If this sounds like a love letter, then I guess it is.
“But Chad,” you’re thinking, “When are you going to turn this back into something about you, because that’s what you do, you egomaniac?”
Very true. Sorry. I almost forgot.
Wil Wheaton recently put up a blog post on this subject that I connected with in a major way. I urge you to check it out HERE.
I’m writing novels now, but haven’t given up on movies. I still want to be on the Dead Guy montage on the Academy Awards. I still want to direct Daniel Day-Lewis. I still think I’d write a better Star Wars film than JJ. I still want to make a good living doing what I love. I want to reach as many people as I can.
I still want all those things. But I may never have them. And that’s okay. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, but it really is. All I can do is do my work and create things I want to create and hope people find and connect with them. On whatever scale. Ten or ten million people. One person. I mean, I moved a person to do this:
I’m not saying I endorse it, but someone thought enough of words that I wrote to have them permanently inked onto their body. That has to count for something. That may be the only Dakota Skye tattoo in the world, but that’s more than a lot of people get. I have to remind myself that. And every day on Twitter and Tumblr I have people reaching out to me about how much the film meant to them.
And I know I’m talking a lot about Dakota, even though it came out five years ago. It’s just at this point the only thing I have out in the world that I’ve gotten a reaction to. Proxy is just an infant and I don’t think my fiction is going to get any attention until I have a few more books on the (virtual) shelves. So the film is the only example I have. At the moment. But I am confident there will be more. I have so many more stories to tell; so many more characters to introduce you to; so many more ideas rolling around in this chaotic shitstorm I call a brain.
But success? I’ve chosen to redefine success for myself. I think for the time being, and maybe forever, I’ll try to be happy livin’ small. Anyway, at this moment in my life, this is what success looks like to me:
(I don’t post these to brag. I post these because they are people being touched by our little movie. They are currency to me. Worth more than any paycheck.)
Please check out jonahmatranga.com and listen to and buy some music.
I’ll leave you with another song, one from Jonah’s short-lived band New End Original, that is the best song for getting me out of bed when my brain and body refuse to do so. I listen to it once a week at least. I don’t always live up to it, but I try. I’ll keep trying.
Whenever the nagging voice of insecurity and doubt grabs hold me I put my headphones on, shut out everything else and just create. Focusing on all the incredible artists I look up to only ends up paralyzing my own creativity. I don’t need to be great like Vallejo or Elmore–I need to be the best me.
You’ve already created something that has touched people’s lives and hearts, with your own voice. You can do it again. 🙂