Last weekend I was up late and noticed a 16-year-old follower of my Facebook page (and aspiring filmmaker) had a shitty night. He lived a nightmare we all had inside of us during high school. He was a sacrificial lamb in a demented prank from kids who he never threatened and never wanted to see get hurt the way he was.
Bullying is a popular subject these days. It’s one I went through for four years, and it was so bad that on my first day of college I lied to my first friends about my high school experience. I haven’t really let it out there until reading a 16 year old kid expose his wounds online.
This was my message to him. I’m sharing this letter in case others might find it useful.
Dear (Sad) Saturday Night Filmmaker,
A little pudge and dark brim glasses aren’t the ingredients to happiness, but making movies for the last few years has come pretty close. I fully understand I’m at the bottom of the filmmaker’s totem, but there’s a trust that I gained with an audience. Self-pride that I hadn’t ever seen or experienced. Growing up, a child of the millennia in the Midwest, I wasn’t a jock, prep, future farmer, super-christian, or burn out. Because of that :
My jokes weren’t as funny (as the dumb jocks)
My insight wasn’t as important (as the spoiled preps)
My friendship didn’t matter (to anyone who wasn’t like me)
The inability to fit into one of those post-pubescent armies made me a unifying target for all of them. “Crack-baby” was my nickname. I was adopted/thin/made funny faces. It was said around faculty and catholic priests. I would have been shocked if a classmate called me “Sean.”
After a few months, I began to realize it wasn’t initiation hazing. This was shooting fish in a barrel, and it was going to happen for a long time.
Mitch Paone and Casey Booth once took soap to my car to draw penises & homophobic slurs on it. I can still see the face of wealthy Republican Carpool Moms and Cross Country Coaches laughing at my lost dignity as I used paper napkins to clean it off. That day was as good as any to hate the world.
Michael Merringhetti and Patrick Lobb, two guys who I never said an ill-word to, once told me that, “I was the reason why they have to teach female on male rape in school,” in front of my only friends (including one who would later join the same fraternity they did). You’d expect that the kid with the dead mom would get a free pass, but instead, I usually sat in the back hoping that Chris Wackenhurst (a kid with an actual mental condition) would do something odd to get the attention off of me.
During my morning shower, I’d weigh my options. Deep down, they wanted me to breakdown. Watching a teenage boy cry is fun. Watching him throw a punch (and probably miss) is funnier. The glorious cinematic moment where you get revenge with eloquent witty banter or a Rube Goldberg-esque prank doesn’t exist in the real world.
This was my first introduction to being the center of attention. Whether that attention was warranted or not, it lead to pure loneliness. My self-defense was simple: respond with non-sensical goofiness and wait for four years. I was a social reject in a house where the only other guest was a 50-year-old man who had watched his wife die for the last 8 years, but in the period of one presidential term, I was the cheap laugh for roughly 800 high school students and 50 faculty members that thought high school was the best years of their lives.
IF… I had been exposed to Prozac, Zoloft, or Canadian-Grown Marijuana, I would not be writing this – to you or anyone. I’d be Sean Hackett, Assistant Regional Manager of DHL Shipping in St. Louis. The one that plays Classic Rock on Pandora.
But instead I was self-medicated by cinema.
My extracurricular activity on weeknights and weekends involved walking laps around Blockbuster, reading every DVD and VHS box possible. Sitting at Barnes & Noble (when they had furniture) to read copies of EW, Premiere, Filmmaker, MovieMaker, and Film Slate. Dad was an accountant at the time. He used large, yellow legal pads to make lists for work. I did the same, but instead of budgeting supplies, I’d list actors, actresses, writers and directors. This simple exercise kept me away from not only contemplating suicide, but wondering sincerely what it would be like if I was never alive.
On a summer day I’d wake up at 8am and go to the movie theater by myself. I’d pay for one ticket and see 4 to 5 films while my dad was at work. When I watched my favorite characters vent, I would vent as well. They were my support group without the styrofoam cups of coffee and drunk uncles.
Herman Blume: You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn’t matter. You were born rich and you’re going to stay rich. But here’s my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it. Thank you.
The power of cinema changed my view of teenage life. The writers, and directors, and studios (yes, even them) protected me. Like a sidekick to my imagination they battled the schoolyard logic that said underdogs can’t win. But most importantly they offered the lesson that the bullies might seem cool, but society isn’t afraid of them.
We’re given two orders by society. STAY as normal as possible in hopes that no one hates us. Or be our weird ass selves and do what we truly love. Not everyone will love you for being weird. Even if you make it to the level of your heroes, people will brush you off and reject you. But someone can only COMPLETELY love you if you do what you love. Whether that love comes back to you from J.J. Abrams or from the theater’s janitor who only got to see one movie at the festival but it-was-yours, it’s really all the same. It gets you back to work the next day. It cures the repression. It turns those tears to fire and hearbeats . That is the only greenlight you need to spend an awesome night in a Denny’s and write 45 pages of your soul for others to see.
Lester Bangs: They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.
William Miller: I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t.
Lester Bangs: That’s because we’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.
Part of the job of filmmaking is going back in time and cheering yourself up on your worst day. I write a lot of characters that are experiencing their “Coming of Age” moments because I’m so proud of 15-year-old Sean. The stinking egg that didn’t crack. I want him to experience victory in those 4 years of high school the same way that I wanted a victory long, long ago. Prepare yourself for what you have to become. Not a storyteller , but the person who has to create joy for others like you.
Please note that because my first introduction to attention wasn’t great, I have twice as much anxiety whenever I write or direct anything. I’m afraid to be the target again. But the claps, handshakes, good jobs , and lunch invites …. they are out there for you. You’re worthy of good attention, too. Weird films are beautiful. And so are the weird people. You’re worthy of the unlimited paradise of attention that you give other great filmmakers.
But even though it’s there, it won’t be easy.
My confidence swings are night and day. A year ago, I found out that some of my co-workers/friends talked about me in a judgmentally high school-esque way, and I was right back there, questioning whether going through all that was really worth doing the work I love. But even if they don’t get you. Or feel like they don’t need you. There’s an audience that does.
Practice will help you be a better storyteller, but understanding the healing power of your imagination gives you a serious advantage over other people in this industry, dude.
You’ve been your own hero. Even if you haven’t noticed it. When the time is right, start your adventure. If others’ imaginations can change the world for you, then maybe your imagination could change the world for others.
Keep Inspiring Us Underdogs,
aka Sean Hackett
aka the high school student formerly known as Crack Baby
Sean Hackett is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. He gained recognition with his directorial debut, Homecoming, which played in the festival circuit in 2011. In 2012, he teamed up with the family of Robert Altman to co-direct a documentary , American Songwriter, focusing on longtime Altman collaborater Danny Darst. Currently he has features in development with Michael Roiff’s Night & Day Pictures, Sundance Award winning producer Nicholas Bruckman, and Gotham Award winning producer Frederick Thornton.
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