Michael Maren directing

‘A Short History of Decay’

by Michael Maren

It was a low point. I had watched my last few film projects crash and burn in ways I couldn’t possibly have foreseen. I had begun to chase the marketplace, and was starting to feel like a hack. (Political dramas are in! Wait! No, that was so last month.) I was investing time, and pouring my heart into writing projects that had no meaning to me other than the check that was waiting at the far end of the process. I was quietly, desperately wondering if I had made a very wrong turn when I left my career as a war correspondent a decade earlier to become a screenwriter. I had a wife, a kid, a private school tuition, mounting credit card debt.

Then I got a call that my father –– who was spending the winter in Florida –– had had a minor stroke. My mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and my father’s sudden illness confused and frightened her. I headed down there, and spent a few days in their rented condo, getting a bigger dose of my parents than I’d had in many years. Tucked into a small bedroom, watching these two old people shuffle around, my mother constantly turning up the heat, making pots of coffee that she promptly forgot she had made –– I had no choice but to see the comedy in it.

That evening, after my parents had gone to sleep, I jotted down the beginning of a small, personal film –– a (very) dark comedy about what was playing out right before my eyes. I took great liberties, of course. I centered the story on a 35-year-old struggling writer whose girlfriend breaks up with him, and heads down to Florida to visit parents much like my own. In the character of Nathan Fisher, I created someone who was called upon to take care of someone else when he still hadn’t figured out how to take care of himself.

I knew from the beginning that this was not a script I wanted to, or could possibly, sell to a studio. I needed to make it myself, from scratch. Nothing I’d learned writing for studios for a decade was going to help me. I needed to break every rule, every convention, every way I had been doing things in my creative life and career.

I wrote my film, A Short History of Decay with the determination that I would make it work. I was aware that this was similar to a five-year-old kid’s pledge to grow up and become President some day. I parted ways with my representation. I started, for the first time in my life, asking friends for help and advice.

After I wrote the script, the first person I showed it to was Milos Forman –– who had become a dear friend, improbably enough, because our sons were in the same primary school. Milos read and loved the script, and offered to executive produce. That was three years ago, and the roller coaster began at that moment.

I’ve learned more about risk –– real, personal, creative, massive risk –– in these last three years than I’ve ever known in my life, which is saying something, given that I spent decades in war-torn countries putting my life on the line. I’ve learned that in order to make the movie I wanted to make, I had to be willing to lose it all, to throw caution to the wind, to endure many sleepless nights when I just didn’t know if it would possibly come together.

MIchael Maren directing

Photos courtesy of Michael Maren

I also had to ask for help, something I had never done before. Starting with Milos Forman, there is a long list of people who have been very generous with their time, counsel, and connections. But I had to ask first. I had a vision for this film, and for my future as a writer-director, and if I wanted to re-invent myself at this stage of my writing life I was going to have to be bold and run the very real risk of falling flat on my face.

LInda Lavin

Michael Maren, Linda Lavin, Bryan Greenberg

A Short History of Decay is opening in New York City on May 16. We have hopes of rolling it out to other cinemas across the country before it goes to DVD/VOD in June. At the moment that I’m writing this, there is an astonishing amount of press lined up for this small, personal film. Of course, I have no way of knowing what will happen once it’s released.

But I know this much. I reclaimed myself as an artist and as a human being by gambling on myself and my vision. The other way, I had been slowly losing myself and my connection to everything that mattered to me. I had forgotten what made me want to be in this business in the first place. At a certain point, it felt to me that there was no other way than to hurl myself into the unknown, holding nothing back.

Michael Maren

About Michael Maren

Michael Maren's career began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. He later became a war correspondent, writing for publications such as Newsweek, The New Republic, Harper's, and was a regular op-ed contributor to The New York Times. His book on the conflict in Somalia, The Road to Hell, was recently called "the seminal book on foreign aid" by The New Yorker. Ten years ago, Maren made the switch from journalism to screenwriting, working for Warner Bros., Fox and HBO, and penning scripts for stars such as Chris Tucker and Reese Witherspoon. His directorial debut, based on his original script "A Short History of Decay" is being released by Paladin and will open in New York City at the Village East Cinema on May 16. Please follow Michael on Twitter: @mmaren

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