Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
The Movie that Plays in My Mind...
...and will maybe forever live only there. On whether to make time for amateur filmmaking and other creative endeavors that will likely never pay off.
It was a big thrill learning that Brooke Berman featured my memoir in her new movie, Ramona at Midlife. The film debuts at Geena Davis’s Bentonville Film Festival today, June 14th—also the first anniversary of my book’s debut, a pretty neat coincidence.
More soberingly, I’ve come to realize that Ramona reading my book in a scene in Brooke’s movie is probably the closest I’ll ever come to seeing my own story onscreen.
📽 🎬 🍿
Like so many authors I’ve of course dreamt about having my book adapted for film or TV. Since my book’s release last June I’ve had a few readers in “the business” reach out to suggest that my book, or parts of it, would make a good movie or series. But nobody is approaching me about film rights. Instead they’re suggesting I learn screenwriting, then either pitch what I’ve written to studios, or somehow raise the money to produce something myself.
While on some level hope springs eternal, I don’t let myself get too emotionally invested in those possibilities, especially after a) knowing so many authors whose books have been optioned (and re-optioned) but never made, b) knowing a few screenwriters who make a living writing and doctoring screenplays that never get made, c) witnessing, via the WGA strike, the many shitty ways in which studios and streaming and services screw screenwriters d) and having been on the disappointing adaptation merry-go-round myself a few times.
A few years ago Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci’s production company was interested in making an anthology series based on Goodbye to All That. We had a couple of good meetings, but then, as so often happens with these things, they dropped the ball, and that was the end of that. I’ve tried on my own to attract the interest of other production companies, but so far, no bites. (Anyone???)
Before that, following the publication of an essay of mine in the New York Times, filmmaker Gary Winick approached me about creating a TV series based on a character like me. We started working together on a treatment for a series called “9th and C,” but before we could finish he tragically developed brain cancer, and then died. I’ve never done anything else with the treatment we started. It makes me too sad, and also, I have no idea how to complete and package a treatment, nor sell a series. (Anyone???) I’m completely out of my depth, and also imagine it would be a huge learning curve to find my way to a new depth.
I’ve been encouraged by my friend Pam Mandel’s recent experience being approached by a producer who wanted to co-author a screenplay adaptation of her 2020 coming-of-age memoir, The Same River Twice. The screenplay has since won several awards, and together she and the producer have also written and shot a short film they’ll use to try and sell the larger one. (I interviewed Pam about it for The Lit Lab vertical of another of my newsletters, Memoir Land.)
Pam has generously emailed both screenplays to me, and I plan to pore over them so I can glean some screenwriting fundamentals.
I’m daunted by the prospect of trying to write my own, though, not only because I always approach learning new things with great trepidation, particularly in my late 50s, but also because bringing a production of my own to fruition feels like such an uphill battle, and also just so unlikely. I have too much of a learning curve, no capital, and only the vaguest, weakest connections to people in the industry who might be able to help me.
At what feels like the end of the world, do I have it in me to make expensive, time-consuming art for art’s sake? To take on a huge creative project in a field where I have no experience (30-second MTV News scripts don’t count), and the odds are so heavily stacked against me? Probably not. But…
📽 🎬 🍿
Yes, there’s a but. There is one little part of me that has been flirting with a film project that first came to mind over 20 years ago, called “Confessions of a Closet Vocalist.” This idea is so vital and dear to me, iterations of it play in my mind all the time. (Iterations of it also exist, in the form of a chapter in my book that covers just a bit of the material, and a monologue I once performed onstage.) It’s so personal, and the likelihood of my being able to make it is so preposterous, that I’m almost embarrassed to reveal more about it here.
When I was interviewed on the Everything is Fine podcast least summer, at the end of the conversation Kim France asked me what I haven’t done yet that I still want to do, and I almost involuntarily blurted that I wanted to make this—because it is always right there below my surface. I’ve been kicking myself ever since that interview. Like, who do I think I am? And how would I even…?
But deep down I also believe in it. I believe that if I had the means and the ability, or if I could attract the interest of someone who did, it could be something really good—funny and moving and relatable.
“Confessions of a Closet Vocalist” was initially envisioned—and was actually begun, in 2002—as a straight documentary; it’s now envisioned a sad-ish slow comedy in the vein of Bridget Everett’s brilliant Somebody Somewhere, about a person like me trying to make a documentary called “Confessions of a Closet Vocalist.”
Maybe it’s a low-fi web series like Maria Bamford’s original YouTube show—although, even something like that seems hard to pull off, in terms of the number of shots, and editing.
The central question that I and/or my fictional avatar seek to answer: who has permission to sing? Like, sing in earnest. Not the kind of karaoke crooning where as part of it you’re subtly making fun of yourself and of singing in earnest. The kind of singing that’s pure, unabashed heart expression.
At the heart of that question is another: Why is it embarrassing to sing in earnest, publicly? Why, when someone catches you singing to yourself, is it as if they caught you picking your nose at a red light? (My other newsletter, Oldster, began with a similar question that I grappled with: Why is it considered embarrassing to age? Why do birthday cards make fun of people for getting older? I genuinely don’t understand why, so I keep trying to find out. Now I’m making a living at finding that out. So…maybe this other thing could work too?)
These are questions I’ve been obsessed with my entire life. They’re very particular to me, the daughter of a professional singer—a man whose family encouraged him, but not his younger sister, who also had a great voice and talent. I’m the daughter of a professional singer who also happens to have a pretty good voice, and enough talent that as a kid I had a talent agent. And yet I’ve never felt as if it was something I was truly allowed to do, not professionally, and definitely not just for fun, or in a setting other than a musical, or a in a choir.
My dad was also a teacher in my school who was known for, among other things, having a piano in his classroom, on which he’d accompany himself singing for the kids daily. He’d make up song parodies for each kid’s name, and sing those when he called on them. Sometimes he’d just walk through the halls belting in his baritone. Before he moved out when I was 10-and-a-half, he walked around the house singing all the time—songs, and also the answers to questions you’d ask him. “Dad, can I stay up another 15 minutes?” “🎼You caaaaaa-aaaan. Okaaaaaay-aaaay. 🎶”
As a result, I grew up never knowing where and when it was appropriate to just open your face up and sing at people, like he did, constantly. It’s led to many embarrassing moments for me where I did just that, but it’s also led me to interview other people, some of whom have had similar embarrassing moments, and others of whom, inspiringly, don’t give a shit if anyone looks at them cross-wise for singing to themselves publicly.
I’ve interviewed those people with a professional digital video camera. With the intention of making this movie.
📽 🎬 🍿
In the summer of 2002, when I had one of my most lucrative short-lived gigs ever writing copy for the USPS website, I treated myself to a weekend-long digital documentary workshop at someplace on the Bowery, the name of which I can’t remember, and that no longer exists. I took the workshop with the explicit intention of learning how to make “Confessions of a Closet Vocalist.” Over two days, we each chose a documentary subject in the area, shot two hours of footage and b-roll, then had to edit it down to a one-minute video. One single minute.
I chose Socrates Bueno, a barber whose shop, Socrates Hair Designers, remains thriving twenty years later on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side. I got my video down to 1:14—the shortest I could manage and have it still make sense, especially given that I had never shot or edited video before. I called it Socratic Method, lol. Here it is.:
I loved the experience. After the workshop, I bought a used Canon digital video camera and started interviewing people. I’d written a feature for the New York Daily News about doctors and dentists and accountants who were musicians on the side, and interviewed some of the singers I’d met through that. I interviewed a writing mentor of mine, and a year later, when I met my husband Brian—once the lead singer in, um Purple Moon Giants (“PMG” if you were a fan)—I interviewed him. I also shot a vocal lesson my dad gave him, training Brian to sing “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot.
Somewhere along the line, though, I stopped shooting footage and put the camera away. I can’t recall making a conscious decision about it, but I probably prioritized my memoir and essay writing, and also the journalism and ghostwriting I was doing to make a living. The camera and many digital cassettes I filled up are somewhere in this house we moved to five years ago, although I’m not sure where. It would be interesting to watch the footage. But probably none of it is very good. And I’ve got a different concept now. I’d have to start over. Who knows, maybe now I could shoot it all on my iPhone.
But should I? Will I?
Sometimes, especially at this time in the world, I think maybe it’s enough that I get to make a living from a fairly creative life. My newsletters, especially Oldster, are sustaining me now. How about that: I’ve been managed to create a job for myself—a response to not being able to get a job now that I’m something of an oldster. And it’s something fairly creative that I get to do, day after day.
Still, “Confessions of a Closet Vocalist” nags at me. Maybe someday…