Once upon a time, my friend Jonny Walls came up with an idea that was both dumb and brilliant at the same time. Taking cues from Survivor and those radio station car giveaway contests, he proposed that a bunch of our friends should gather at his house, set up shop on his (pretty substantial) couch with as many snacks, televisions, and video game consoles as possible, and then see who could maintain physical contact with the couch for the longest. As best I can remember, the winner would have received only bragging rights (and, potentially, a bladder infection).
It was dumb because, well, I mean, just read that paragraph again. But it was also brilliant, because imposing arbitrary rules about maintaining contact with the couch would’ve made an event out of what would have otherwise been just another weekend playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and watching football. Making events out of ordinary occurrences is a great way to make lasting memories, and Jonny has always been an expert memory manufacturer. It’s one of his best qualities.
Sadly, his idea never materialized. Or, at least, not in the form he originally anticipated. But, when Jonny decided, after a few years working in L.A. as a freelance film editor, that he’d had about enough of calling himself an “aspiring” director, the couch came calling once again.
Jonny recognized that, to shoot a feature-length film on a shoestring budget, he had to come up with an idea that could take place with as few actors and set changes as possible. From there, Couch Survivor was born.
Here’s the poor man’s elevator pitch:
An executive at a failing TV network creates a reality show where the contestants compete for a cash prize by maintaining contact with a large couch for as long as possible. The show, predictably, is a disaster, and a “fixer” is called in to spice up the tepid proceedings by introducing all manner of all-too-familiar drama-producing reality TV tropes. Much quirky drama ensues.
Jonny and his crew shot the film for almost nothing (I can’t emphasize this point enough. Think about what you imagine a 90-minute film might cost to make if you paid everybody involved. Got it? I guarantee you the number you have in your head is larger than the amount of money these folks had to work with.) in a little over a week. When you watch the film (which you can via Amazon, iTunes, and just about any place digital movies are sold), you’ll notice some of the seams that inevitably show on a project with this little room to wiggle. Not every line lands as cleanly as I’m sure Jonny would like, for example, and the production rush makes for a few bumpy transitions. But you’ll also notice a lot of sharp writing and a couple of genuinely funny performances. You’ll notice Jonny’s willingness to embrace the zany and outlandish as a way to not only satirize reality TV, but also as a way to counterbalance the moments of legitimate poignancy between the characters.
But the first time I watched Couch Survivor, I barely noticed any of that. The only thing I could really think about was that my friend made this thing, more or less, out of thin air. About eight years ago, he left his home and drove west, hoping to fulfill his wildest ambitions. His time in L.A. has not been, I don’t think, what people imagine when they picture the hopeful droves who flock to big cities to chase their dreams. There’s a reason that people who make it as performers describe their paths to stardom as a “grind;” for every person who ends up chatting with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, there are thousands whose projects never see the light of day, whose performances never end up committed to film, or whose words are never read by anybody besides their buddies at the screenwriting workshop.
It’s enough to wilt the spirit of even the most ardent dreamer. I think, on more than one occasion, that it’s nearly wilted Jonny’s. We’ve had conversations where I can tell that he’s caught a few bad breaks in a row – an actor with a name you’d recognize has passed on one of his scripts, for example, or nothing ever comes of a connection who swears up and down that they’ve found an investor for one of his projects – and that the long odds of reaching his professional goals are weighing heavily on his mind.
It’s hard to watch a friend suffer through these moments of doubt, but it was a lot harder before Couch Survivor became a reality.
Now, that’s not because the movie was a huge success (though Jonny was able to give it a proper premier at the Kentucky Theatre in October, and its distribution deal will go some way toward recouping its budget), but simply because now I know something I didn’t know before: Jonny can do this. I know he can do it because he’s already done it.
That sounds glib, but I’m serious. A lot of creative types only flirt with exercising the full scope of their talents while waiting for a big break, but the more I read about writers, actors, directors, and musicians who’ve made their way to the tops of their professions, the more I realize just how much value there is in simply doing a thing without worrying so much about what will happen next. Jonny wanted to be a director, so he scrounged together a budget from some family and friends and made a movie. He wrote it, filmed it, edited it, and sent it out into the world. Directing a film is no longer some abstract hurdle he has to clear; it’s a tangible accomplishment. Now, he’s free to brush aside the word “aspiring” and ask the most important question an artist can ask: what am I going to do next?
As it happens, what he’s going to do next is a movie called All About the Afterglow. Again, Jonny wrote, directed, and edited the film. I have no doubt he’s already figuring out what his next project (and the project beyond that) is going to be. Doing begets doing, it would appear.
None of this, of course, means that the doubt goes away. None of it means that my friend doesn’t have a long way to go to get where he wants to be. None of it means that you’re going to catch him on Conan before the year is out. But I don’t think Jonny thinks that way any more. I think he knows that having your dreams come true in Hollywood is a lot more random that we might like to admit. But instead of letting that knowledge paralyze him, he’s taking care of the parts he can control – the parts that involve working hard and keeping himself sharp and doing work he can be proud of.
As someone who’s pursuing a creative career of his own, I’m inspired by his conviction and his proactive approach. I’ve too often let myself feel intimidated by the very real possibility that this dream I’ve got simply isn’t going to become a reality. In those moments, I should look to Jonny. Not because he doesn’t feel that fear too, but because he’s shown me that the best way to deal with it is to work through it. Instead of wishing for a book deal, I should just write a book. Let the part that involves stuff I can’t control come after that. Don’t wait for it. Just do it.
Now there’s a way of looking at the world. Somebody really ought to use that.