Birth of the Project
Updated: Nov 16, 2019
September 9, 2018, Dick and I left Hudson, NY for Clinton, NJ. We had attended Emma & Glenn’s wedding that weekend, and would have stayed to further enjoy charming Hudson except that my third film, Shirts! was going to screen at River Town Film Festival that day. We arrived just in time to see it along with two documentaries and one narrative film: Rodents of an Unusual Size, For a Better Life and The Hanji Box. While watching one of those films, something turned my thoughts to a friendly acquaintance, someone I’ve known since the 1990s. It might have been For a Better Life, an animated short about an abused youth who eventually finds an advocate and healing. That would be too obvious, however, as I’m prone to more subtle influences. Rodents of an Unusual Size was a bizarre delight. I was enthralled from start to finish and inspired by the twists, turns, and detours of a story I never knew I needed to hear. The Hanji Box was an exploration of loss, specifically an object, but loss nonetheless. I was, creatively, over-stimulated.
I whispered into Dick’s ear “I should do a film about Jim Hoffmaster.” Not unlike the moment I knew I needed to make a film about Kathy Knapp, the Pie Lady, it was a thought that quickly became the obsession a project of this magnitude needs to be.
I didn’t know Jim very well. We met in the 1990s in Michigan when he worked at Schuler Books. He didn’t seem to care much for me, his reactions ranged from indifference to rudeness when ringing up whatever books I purchased. I knew he was active in community theater, perhaps I had seen him in a play. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue a more vibrant acting career, it was just a vague bit of news that made no difference to me. Nevertheless, whenever I traveled to LA to visit friends we managed to meet. He admitted that his discourtesy came from intimidation of my persona. I was “cool,” “bohemian,” maybe I was gay, he thought. So there we would be in downtown LA at a rustic French bakery, or the Cognac Room at the Biltmore, two unlikely characters from polar worlds (or so it seemed).
Our discussions centered around his early life, beginning with the fact that his birth mother gave him up to the foster care system on the cusp of his first birthday. No one wanted to adopt him, as he was thought to be “mentally retarded.” He was sexually and verbally abused. He eventually met his birth mother, but who was his biological father? Did he have siblings? He was a working actor in Hollywood but my curiosity and interest were, in those days, about his convoluted past. Like a child at bedtime I would beg for a retelling of his story and he would oblige me, not much of an effort for someone who likes talking about himself. It didn’t matter that he never expressed curiosity about me. So I was stunned when one evening he paused, looked directly at me with those penetrating eyes and asked a personal question. The interlude was brief, albeit flattering. I was inclined and content to turn attention back to him, to hear that story told in that voice. Why could I not get enough of this?
Since the festival success and Academy Award® qualification of Pie Lady of Pie Town, the personal satisfaction of Apotheosis and the restorative properties of Shirts!, many ideas for films have been presented to me. “I have the perfect story for you” announces a well-meaning individual, and with sweeping gestures they relate a story they are certain will beguile me. These are interesting enough narratives, but an idea needs to attach itself to me like a leech. What story will I fall in love with? As with love maybe there is no obvious reason other than sublime, abstract chemistry.
When I whispered those words, I should do a film about Jim Hoffmaster,
the flood gates opened. I was eager to pitch the idea to Jim who at that time I communicated with solely through text messaging, and rarely.
Neither of us can recount a moment when we shook hands to seal the deal or when the word “yes” was spoken. Ignorance was bliss, a benevolent beckoning through an open gate that I entered with blind faith. I wooed Jim with texts, phone calls, and eventually in person when in November, 2018 I flew to Los Angeles. What I did not realize was that I was wooing myself down a long, arduous road with twists, turns and detours of its own. I wooed myself into an expensive endeavor. I wooed myself into an exhilarating journey of artistic expression. I wooed myself into an extraordinary friendship that took me first by surprise, later by storm.
Lessons would be learned - what is the point of creating if not to learn? - but I didn’t expect to learn lessons I thought I’d already been taught. Nor did I expect the process to be as emotionally draining as it was invigorating. It would be months before any of this would be revealed to me.
In the meantime, without a handshake, without “yes,” Jim and I embarked on our voyage.