I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS! (AND NEITHER DO YOU)
JOHN ANTHONY RUSSO
I don’t know how to do this! (and neither do you)
I host the Up Next Podcast, where I interview actors, writers, and directors in N.Y.C. and L.A., theater and film, as they work to break through to the next stage. They still have day jobs, or have just started supporting themselves full-time with their creative work. Each interview focuses on the daily struggle of an artistic life: how do you balance your day job with your creative career; how do you navigate the business and the craft sides of your art? I’m asking because I don’t know. I hope to have guests share what’s worked for them, so listeners can take some tips away, or maybe just recognize that they’re not the only ones struggling. It’s like Mark Maron’s WTF Podcast, but the guests haven’t made it yet.
Everyone on the podcast comes at the same problems in different ways, bringing their own baggage but also their own creativity. Group mind is good. Maybe I can learn from how you’re reaching out to casting directors. Maybe the way you’ve prioritized projects can give me some perspective on what I’m pursuing.
I am Scrooge McDuck and coffee is my gold
I’m an actor/screenwriter living in NYC. I have a bunch of writing projects in various stages, which means that I spend most days checking my email every ten minutes, waiting for that cool-as-all-get-out actor, or the producer who sounded interested, or said he was interested, or that director who’d be a perfect fit, to write back and say that he couldn’t put the script down and let’s go into production now! Or write back at all, maybe to say he got the draft I sent.
The podcast started with coffee (as a new dad, everything does), talking to my friend Michael Micalizzi, a very talented and smart guy, who’s getting some awesome acting work. I wanted a way to keep working on something while my wife and I were in the sleep-walking first three months of parenthood. My big fear was falling behind our friends/network as they moved on into bigger and better roles while I took a break to get my sea legs as a parent.
I could use that!
I know a lot of talented people who are building a solid foundation for their career, working constantly, trying to get to the next level; and none of us really knows how, exactly, to make that happen. So, when a project ends, we panic. We pay money to meet casting directors. We take classes. We look for auditions during tech. We hold seats Guffman-style during previews.
I listen to interviews every day – commuting on the subway to auditions, driving out to Long Island for my day job. They help. Hearing successful artists talk about their own former day jobs, their own trials, settles down the writhing self-doubt for a bit. But no one interviews people during the struggle. Here’s the whole crux of the Up Next Podcast – these artists are talented enough to make it, but will they be able to fight through all the obstacles? I heard Judd Apatow on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast: he didn’t know how to be a stand up, so he started a radio show, in high school, and interviewed comedians on how they did what they did. Genius. And so Up Next was born.
And speaking of births…
Here’s a funny thing that doesn’t happen to you when you have a kid:
Having a baby doesn’t kill your career! But it totally changes everything about it. Including, in a nice way, giving you a very tangible reminder that you’re not racing against some wall that’s coming at you. You don’t have to get everything done NOW. You can take the long view. We’re at the beginning of something very long-term. It’s grounding to spend time with my son every day.
Here’s another funny thing: We’re very tightly scheduled. With no time for bullsh*t, you can’t be so precious about whatever it is you’re working on. Just get in there and figure it out. Ed Burns talks about this a lot in interviews, with his small budget, DIY distribution models. He has a great two-hour Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith (possibly when it was still the Creative Screenwriting podcast) in which he encourages young filmmakers to get out there and make projects happen, instead of waiting for permission from someone. I didn’t know how to edit, but I figured it out.
The waiting! And then… The waiting again!
I came to screenwriting after a long hiatus from writing (I majored in fiction) because during the lulls in acting projects, however brief, I panic. Itchy for some way to fill that void, I took stock. I started listening to Filmspotting, a great film review podcast. I read loads of screenplay structure books. That novel I never finished became the prewriting and outline for my first screenplay. Now that I’m several screenplays in, and talking to real people about real projects, it’s the periods between screenplays that drive me crazy. Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from a network on a pilot I wrote; I’m waiting to get feedback from an actor I love on the latest draft of a film I sent him; I’m waiting on word from a producer about a first draft of an adaptation I sent him; I’m waiting for a director to tell me if he’s in. This is not to brag – it’s what keeps me writing (and they could just as easily never materialize). It’s why I started writing, and why I started the podcast. I can’t stand waiting. When my wife and I were waiting for our son to be born, for the week before his due date until he was born (one. week. late.), we cooked the most elaborate meals we could think of, taking three hours a day to do it (we also watched two and a half seasons of Friday Night Lights). This, in essence, is my creative life.
I use garageband: you plug in a mic, and you record. Simple. Editing is a snap – with a little practice, you can get pretty good at very basic stuff (which is all you need). I borrowed a mic, recorded an interview, edited out the ums and pauses. I took style tips from Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment and Marc Maron’s WTF. Podcast people were very cool about helping me out – I tweeted a software question out to Jenny Radelet (KCRW), Marc Maron, and Jesse Thorn (Bullseye) and they all replied! I’d love to make a sound-rich podcast like Roman Mars or Radiolab someday, and I have a series of shorts in the vein of “This American Life” that I put on hold to work on some writing. I have 14 episodes out now, all free and available at the website or through iTunes. It’s a nice break from writing, and a great way for me to keep some creative flow going and stay connected to my network of friends.
What’s that they say about other plans and life happening…?
The podcast is about balancing your day job and creative life, while trying to figure out how to make a sustainable career out of your art. Funny enough, I’m in the middle of a podcasting break, for the very reason I started the podcast. I’m trying to balance my day job, family life, and creative tasks. But, there are more interviews coming, as well as special storytelling episodes. So, if you like the first fourteen, hang tight.
(This is where it all began 3 years ago...)
Well, thank you Judd Apatow, for being a smart high school kid, admitting you didn’t know how to do something, and coming up with a way to figure it out. I’m not ashamed to steal that idea from an eighteen year-old.
The Up Next Podcast is available on iTunes or here.
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John Anthony Russo is an actor/screenwriter in NYC
JOHN ANTHONY RUSSO – actor/screenwriter
John has two feature film projects in development: an original feature and an adaptation of a novel. John’s work has recently been produced at the Flea theater, in NYC, as part of the late-night short-play competition, #serials@theflea. His first feature screenplay earned a semifinalist spot in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope screenplay contest. He wrote and appears in the TV pilot "The Gentlemen's Auto Club."
John has appeared as an actor on As the World Turns, and One Life to Live. He played the lead in an independent pilot at the NY TV Festival, and in a short comedy film. John trained at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade improv theater and the off-Broadway company the Barrow Group. As a member of the Flea Theater’s resident company, in NYC, John originated roles in new plays by A.R. Gurney, Itamar Moses, Will Eno, Ken Urban, Mac Wellman, and others.
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"Up Next" features NYC actors / writers / directors sharing insight and funny stories as they work to make their break.