The Birth of the Story

The story of how Sweet Corn came into existence starts in Hawaii.  Actually, it really starts about 12 years before that, but we’ll get to that.

This tale is long, but it has a point.  

THE SCRIPT

Cliff Diving

In April of 2013 my family went to Oahu along with another family we’re close to.  Our kids are about the same age and all the adults get along quite well.  It’s simple and easy to travel with them as the kids mostly entertain each other while the adults can relax, purchasing meals as needed.   Day two of the trip we make the trek to the famed North Shore.  Our plan: check out the majestic beach and hike around a bit.   Russ – the other dad – and I wondered up the beach with our cameras, snapping random pics along the way.  I won’t lie – it’s a paradise.  Even though I live in Venice Beach now it’s on an entirely different level.  After spending most of my life in Minnesota the tropical is still new to me.

Along our way we came across a huge rock just off the shore – it must’ve been at least 30 feet tall, jetting out into the ocean around 60 feet.  It’s impossible to miss.  On this particular day the waves were non-existent – a rarity on this part of the island.   Jumping off the top of this cliff was everyone from the gorgeous bikini-clad locals to the fresh off the tourist mart beach short wearing pale-skin fellas from Iowa – everyone was jumping.  And why not, the conditions were perfect.  Standing up top it was possible to see the bottom of the ocean – there wasn’t an obstacle in sight.  Everyone was friendly and encouraging.  The temperature was just right.

“Seriously,” I said to Russ.  “If you were ever going to jump off a cliff, this is the one to do it on.  It’s perfect.”

“You should do it,” he said.  No way was he gonna try.

“You know,” I said.  “I used to jump off of stuff twice this high in the Boundary Waters and the conditions weren’t even close to this.   But I’m not gonna jump – cause chances are with my luck I’d probably screw up my knee and mess up the rest of this vacation.”

Remember those words… So we climbed down.  Which in hindsight was way more dangerous than jumping.  And we strolled back to reconvene with the rest of the family.

Sea Turtles  

A couple hours later my ten year old, Carter, wanted me to join him down the beach where we’d heard there were sea turtles.   We strolled down a quarter mile to a spot up on a sandy ledge that was pointed out as the perfect vantage point to spot turtles.  As I followed Carter up the slight incline I noticed two things – the waves were crashing over a small wall of rocks every couple minutes and a rock in the middle of the sand.

One rock.

It was flat and sort of round – approximately 12 inches or so in diameter.  When the waves crashed into the sand they pummeled this rock right along with them.  Warm weather, constant exposure to water – that’s gotta be a slippery rock, I thought, as I approached the rock.  Looking at photographs of the rock later on I wondered why the hell my body felt compelled to take this route to the edge of the lookout when there were so many other options.   I approached the rock, following Carter.

As I stepped over the rock to avoid it the sand, also chronically moist, gave way beneath my left foot.  With my left foot down a couple inches my right foot – which was stepping over the rock – was now on the rock.  It shot out across the slippery surface and got jammed on the other side – maybe an inch of rock held my heel in place. Once that happened I fell back onto a slight decline.

The facts so far: left foot sinking down, right foot stuck in place, and body falling back.

With my right stuck, I fell lower and bent my knee further than it was meant to bend in a split second.   Now, under normal circumstances this would’ve just resulted in a fall.  That’s it.  Even my surgeon, later on, said that I should come up with a better story for what happened because what he saw in my knee and what I said happened made absolutely no sense.  It was a freak accident in the freakiest sense of the word.  This was coming from a surgeon who is part of a team of surgeons dubbed the Official Surgical Team of the US Olympics.  As part of his regular job he also works with the NBA.   What happened next defies logic…

While falling, my let made a snapping sound like a giant rubber band finally giving way.  And I glanced down just in time to see my kneecap shoot out and up my thigh.

As with any painful incident like this the moment unfolds in slow-motion… All the sounds, snaps, tears, crunches, and images are burned into my mind.

Once I landed I knew one thing – I couldn’t move.  My leg no longer functioned – at all.  Standing up was a joke and so in as calm a voice I could muster I said, “Carter – I busted my knee – get Russ and mom.”   Fortunately, I learned that for as much as Carter and I joke around the kid handles urgent situations with absolute grace.  Without question he sprinted the quarter mile back to the rest of the families and got help.

Meanwhile, I laid in the sand and kept repeating the words, “do not pass out.  Do not pass out.”

Why?

It wasn’t due to the pain, but the nausea caused by what I’d seen.  How embarrassing, I thought, to end up dead cause I passed out in the waves.

Under the Sign

Watching Russ saunter back up I knew he was more than just a little annoyed.  Somehow, I’d jinxed our trip with those dumb words spoken only hours earlier.   I’m certain my knee is just dislocated – that it simply needs to be popped back into place and I’ll be back on my feet.  After everyone tries to help me up we realize even if they do get me up there’s no way I’m making it back to the car.   And that’s when the real heroes arrive, all set to waste their time on yet another clumsy tourist.  These lifeguards make the beast-like bad guy surfers in Point Break look like pansies.  You know – the crew that Anthony Keidis is part of.  He’s the one who gets shot in the foot during the first major police raid.

Anyway, these tatted up beach-dwellers standing in front of me have seen it all and my distorted knee won’t be joining their tales of the horrors from the beach.   So these guards wrap a cardboard splint around my entire leg and hoist me onto the back of a four-wheeler.  Propped up on the back of the four-wheeler, I sat there like a helpless dolt.  Russ snapped pictures as I took my ride of shame back up the beach.  Everyone probably figured I fell victim to one of the many hazards of this tropical wonderland: shark attack, surf injury, a major fall… Anything.  But, nope… I slipped on a rock.

“You need to come up with a better story” is what everyone tells me, but I think it epitomizes the silliness of life.   After dropping me off under a handicap sign, the beach rough necks head back to do some real work.  The ride back to Honolulu is not a pleasant one – every bounce, turn, and stop is a bit painful.  In a symbolic gesture the clouds turned into a majestic sight – intense storm clouds opening up like a curtain to allow some heavenly rays to pour onto the stage of the mountainside.   Back in Honolulu I sat in the ER for over 8 hours – getting pushed to the bottom of the priority list every time a new patient arrived with so much as a nosebleed (as it should be).  It gave me time to read a novel and research my condition.

After learning that I didn’t dislocate my knee (thank the maker as that sounds truly awful) I concluded that I tore something major and that I would need surgery.  The doctors confirmed my suspicions and suggested I tough out the rest of the vacation and get the surgery back in Los Angeles – as it would be a difficult recovery.   While I was hanging out I had the chance to tell a bunch of nurses and doctors my story – they all laughed, but one nurse had an even better tale.

She had a patient in New York who used to joke around a lot – any time one of his friends hit him anywhere he’d say, “Ow – my pancreas.”  One day he got a horrible pain in his stomach and required an emergency surgery.  Turns out he had pancreatitis.  After the surgery he told his nurse, “Man, I’ve learned my lesson – never gonna joke around like that anymore.  Whenever I get hit from now on I’m gonna say, ‘ow – my vagina!’ cause I ain’t got one of them.”

So don’t put the shit out there – it’ll come back eventually.

Being my third or forth time on crutches I was an expert at moving quickly – even the doctors agreed when they tested me out on them.  After adding up all of my leg injuries, I’m guessing I’ve spent at least 9 months of my life on those bad-boys.   Hawaii was fine on crutches.  Really, I had nothing to complain about – on the flight back to Los Angeles we learned about the Boston Marathon bombing.  Fellow runners, athletes, and ordinary people checking off their bucket list – they were hit with senseless chaos and lost limbs.

Cabin Fever

Before going under the knife I told my tatted up, motorcyclist anesthesiologist in a moment of delirium that he better not lose my spectacles.  Cause if he did my vision is such shit that I might accidentally kiss him.  The surgeon did his work and repaired not just my torn patellar tendon – which runs the length of the leg like a giant rubber band, basically the spinal cord of the leg – but also my MCL, also torn in the fall.

Recovery was hell.  I couldn’t move or think for the first two days.   That incident reminded me of the fragility of life.  And it’s not like I needed a reminder – when I was 21 my best friend killed himself the same summer that both of my grandfathers died.  Why did I need a bigger reminder than that?  And I’ve been injured before – but this was different.

When I started physical therapy I was told this haunting statement, “there’s only one other injury that takes longer to recover from – and that’s breaking a back.”  Jesus.  And I almost broke my back at 16 when I fell out of a tree house and landed on a propped up railroad tie.   It would be at least 5 months before I’d be running on my own and at least 7 months before I’d be biking as aggressively as I was before the injury and at least a year before I was anywhere close where I was physically before the injury.

After about a week or so I was able to get out to my studio – twenty feet behind our house.  Not exactly a trek.  Filmmakers don’t really get vacations.  Even vacations are about feeding the mind and enhancing a point of view with experiences.   So I was back in the office – trying to work.  Being active is a big part of getting my mind into a place where ideas are allowed to flow without resistance.  Not being able to move around – it was having a dire impact on my writing.  After a couple days of staring at a blank screen I decided to do something productive: clean.  They always say if you want a clean house, marry a writer.  It’s true.  But this procrastination was taking on an even crazier form.  I made the decision to reorganize the prior 15 years of my life.  It was squirreled away in boxes, filing cabinets, and drawers.

Nearly two years before all of this I’d made a resolution to finally invest in one of my own projects – to find a piece of material I was passionate about.  After writing over a dozen scripts, working with other writers, and considering some short stories nothing really jumped out at me as something I was so passionate about that I’d be willing to put any money into it.   I had a list of requirements for the project I wanted in my head – granted, I knew they’d be next to impossible to fulfill, but they were there.  I wanted something to shoot in the Midwest, a story I connected to emotionally, characters I wanted to live with, and themes that would resonate with me – and, hopefully, an audience.  I didn’t want to just make something for the sake of making it – that’s a waste of time.

From a business perspective the project had to have legs, a potential audience, it had to be bigger than anything I’d done before, and it needed to give me the opportunity to work with great actors.   I didn’t think I’d ever find something that hit all those requirements, but that’s why my bar was so high.  As the mother of my favorite storyboard artist told him before he move to Los Angeles from Boston, “don’t add to the shit” – I felt that was sound advice.

While cleaning out my archives I read through everything – every article I’d ever snipped, every old script, play, story, notebook, scrap of paper, etc.  Anything I deemed worthy of keeping at one point or another I read through and either tossed or filed away.

On the forth day of digging I read a script that was over 11 years old.

Watermelon

There was something about this script that resonated with me.  It was a simple story about a British bank robber kidnapping a farmer on the side of the road and trying to get out of town, but getting hit with every imaginable obstacle along the way.  It was funny, poignant, and struck me.  There was something about the basic elements of the story that struck me.  It hit me in the one place I’d been waiting to get hit for a long time – the gut.

What I also liked was the fact that it was written by my long-time collaborator, Chad Gilman.  We’ve done a couple films together and have known each other for a nearly 20 years.  I felt it was a great sign that I responded to material he’d written.  The script was by no means done – the characters didn’t really have an arc, there was no ending, and the film wasn’t really about anything, but there was a voice.

So I rang up Chad.   “Remember that script you wrote a long time back about the farmer and the gangster – Watermelon?”   “Yeah,” he said, “I always liked that one.”

“Yeah,” I said, sharing the story of how the script ended up in my hands again after so many years, “I think there might be something here.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Here’s the thing – it needs a bit of work, but I’ve got an idea as to what we could do with this.”

I pitched him some ideas, which he responded to and then I sent him a rough treatment of where I thought we might take the story.  A couple weeks later he sent me the script – Sweet Corn.  And I loved it.  I didn’t want to change a line.  I called him up and said we’re making this.  I could feel it in my gut – this script was right on.   It tackled a theme that I’d been subconsciously wanting to explore – desperate people driven to the edge and what happens when they don’t know how to deal with the pressure…