Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Heroes , Idols & Role Models (Part Three)

Last week I talked about some of my video game heroes, and the week before I discussed a writer, and improviser, and a musician I really admired. Today I'm going to close out my series on Heroes, Idols & Role Models with three people who have affected my life in dramatically different ways over the years.

MY HEROES, IDOLS AND ROLE MODELS (PART THREE)

MATTHEW STILLMAN
Nothing can stop the power of two Matts

I met Matt Stillman during the formation of one of my first improv groups, Pax Romana, a name suggested by Mr. Stillman himself. 'Pax Romana' was a period of peace experienced by Roman Empire for 207 years, from 27 BC to 180 AD (that is a piece of information that I only know because I was on a team named after it). It's apropos that he came up with the idea for this name since, along with his surname, Matt is one of, if not the most calm, patient zen-like person I've ever met. One of the only notes he ever got in his scenework by our coach was to "get emotional!" and seeing him struggle to flip out on stage remains one of my favorite and most distinct memories of him.

Now, I have a lot of friends I could list here who I love, adore and respect, and I could make a list of here of people in my social circle I've learned lessons from over the years. But what separates Stillman from the pack is that I've watched (and read, on his blog) him in awe countless times as people came to him for advice from everything ranging from careers to relationships to simply calming down. He runs a booth in Union Square here in New York that offers "Creative Approaches To What You Have Been Thinking About." People sit down, they talk to him about whatever is on his mind, and he listens. And listens. And responds. And then listens some more.

Stillman has a combination of ridiculous world knowledge (there doesn't seem to be a single topic he doesn't know a thing about) and pure, unadulterated empathy for whoever is talking to him that truly blows my mind. I personally struggle to get through a conversation without segueing into my own personal life, whether it's something I'm proud of or something that's bugging me at the moment. But Stillman will not do that, even when prodded - he doesn't complain, he doesn't brag. He just supports, like a true friend should.

I've sought advice from him myself on a number of occasions, and probably the only thing I've offered him in return is a few laughs and some new experiences with video games, which by now I'm sure he's read up about in more detail than I have. I'm incredibly proud to call him my friend.

The lessons I've learned from Mr. Stillman?

STAY CALM, LISTEN CLOSELY & SEEK OUT YOUR OWN CREATIVE APPROACHES

DAMON LINDELOF AND CARLTON CUSE

Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are the executive producers, writers and co-creators of Lost, one of my favorite television series of all time. I'm going to do my best here to not sound like a gushing fanboy, though on some level that will be impossible since that's kind of what I am.

Without getting too in-depth, Lost is a show that started off with a plane crash on a mysterious island, and to go into the plot at large would be to list a lot of details about flashbacks, crazy past character connections, time travel, smoke monsters and other elements that combine to sound like a sci-fi geeks' wet dream. But truth be told, I would be willing to bet most hardcore sci-fi geeks have probably given up on the show by now, because those details are not really what the show is about. The show is heavily, HEAVILY guided by themes of fate vs. destiny, science vs. faith, family/daddy issues, and of course, love. And I don't know whether its been a combination of being hit over the head by this stuff, the number of websites and podcasts I've listened that have mentioned them, or just me finally coming around to it after all these years, but it's been one of the first times in my life that I've started to pick up on these concepts, and really appreciate a story for more than it's characters and plot points.

What's also really interesting to me is what Lindelof, Cuse, and the other writers (and I should state here that while I'm calling out the two main producers of the show, the entire cast and crew gets my utmost respect and adoration) apparently did when they first started creating the show was they improvised a lot of it up front, without necessarily having all the details fully ironed out. A lot of the mysteries were simply the brainchild of "Wouldn't it be cool if..." rather than worrying about everything necessarily fitting in with what had been established. Which, let's be clear - was an effort that did not go flawlessly. In it's first few seasons the show, without having a definitive end date, was starting to feel like an improv show that had gone on without a blackout call for way too long. Once they got word that the show would be ending after six seasons (as they had wanted), they finally found themselves able to keep the creative engine running while at the same time knowing at what point they'd have to start wrapping things up.

Now looking back at the show, knowing that so much of it was born out of the desire to tell a kick-ass story that contained all the aforementioned themes, with characters the audience would come to care about, with all the crazy island mysteries more as a backdrop than a primary motivator to watch the show. They took some huge risks and have had to deal with an incredible amount of backlash from their devoted fans who want to be constantly reassured that "making it up as we go along" didn't lead to "uh, we don't know how to pay this all off and end this, sorry." The reality is writing a televised drama is inherently risky, and unlike say, a Tolkien novel, during the season you need a story a week out the door and you need to keep the audience hooked the entire time, especially with a sprawling epic like this. And it's safe to say they'd be harder on themselves than any fan would be if they ended their story in a subpar fashion.

The ending to their wonderful series is just under two weeks away, and whether or not they totally stick the landing (which I'm fairly confident they will) won't take away from how amazing the ride has been. Thanks for 6 years of great, inspirational storytelling guys. And to everyone who gave up on the show (or has never watched - which really, whatever you've got going on right now, it's less cool, trust me), you're really missing out.


Lessons learned from Lindeloff and Cuse?

TAKE RISKS & IGNORE THE HATE

BATMAN

Yes, my final entry is about a fictional character. No, I'm not 9 years old anymore. Just hear me out.

In many ways Batman is the ultimate role model. He's overcome great adversity (his parent's death as a child), he's figured out a way to fight crime not with natural super powers but by using the resources available to him (wealth, technology, and the convenient cave situated below his mansion), and while he doesn't operate within the traditional confines of the law, he has a strict moral code that has never led him astray.

I think a lot about the superheroes I idolized and romanticized growing up, and I think many of them, especially Batman, A) made me think the world was a much cooler place than I could ever imagine and B) kept me from ever even thinking about committing a crime, even something as small as stealing a light-refracting top from a 'Science-Is-Fun!'-themed toy store (I did this by accidentally putting in my pocket to ask my parents to purchase it for me and then forgetting about it when I was 10, and I immediately cried in the car ride home when I discovered it). My moral compass was set at an early stage, and I've rarely wavered since then.

Of course, you could say there are downsides to living a lot of your life wanting to be a non-existent superhero/millionaire playboy - things like homework, chores, and later in life, jobs and bills seem so unimportant compared to that of the Dark Knight. But that's what I have all those other guys I mentioned for, right? If Bruce Wayne had only showed me a thing or too about picking up women and making tough career choices, then really my life would be perfect right now.

Things I learned from Batman?

MAKE ADVERSITY AN OPPORTUNITY TO ACHIEVE & NEVER USE GUNS OR LETHAL FORCE WHEN DEALING WITH THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT.

That about wraps it up. Lots of lessons learned, lots of inspiration gained, along with a large amount of personal entertainment, naturally. You noticed that one pretty persistent theme in all of this - right? Entertain me first, get my full attention, and then I'm like putty in your hands for whatever message or character traits you have. That's a pro-tip for any of you looking to make it on a theoretical part four of this way down the line.

-Matt