How five years of work turned a few whiskeys into a short film

Northwestern University, where this whole thing began.

Northwestern University, where this whole thing began.

When I first started scribbling line after line of whiskey-soaked, stream-of-consciousness, bizarre-o nonsense, I had no idea how big this was going to get.

We’ve finally shot our short film, Never Stop. All in all, this film has been almost five years in the making. That is, five years so far. We’re not done yet. 

The origin

It all started with Naked Lunch, the gloriously twisted masterpiece by one William S. Burroughs. I was reading it for a course with the brilliant Paul Edwards of Northwestern University, in which we were studying the art and culture of America in the 1950s. When I fell into the nightmarish world of Naked Lunch, I knew this is the piece I would focus on for my final.

What was my final? I planned to write a 15-minute play inspired by the novel. It’s not exactly based on the book, at least not in terms of its premise or its plot. Instead, I immersed myself in the language, the images, the flow, the style. My plan was to write an entirely original piece that simply felt like it could have been lifted from the pages of Naked Lunch.

In order to do that, I decided there was only one route to take: I needed to emulate the process Burroughs used to create the book. This would involve investigating his cut-up technique, as well as one other key ingredient.

The thing was, I didn’t have any heroin.

See, Burroughs was a big fan of opiates at the time, as well as all sorts of other drugs—which he eventually found his way out of. I was committed to this project, but not quite that committed. Instead, I figured I’d stick with whiskey.

One of my original notebooks full of prose poetry.

One of my original notebooks full of prose poetry.

Step one

I went to various bars around Evanston, night after night, armed only with a small notebook and pen. I’d order a whiskey, then begin to write, allowing whatever came to my mind to land on the page. Burroughs actually believed he was receiving transmissions from outer space. For me, it was mostly my bad dreams mixed with the chatter of the bar.

Each time I finished a whiskey, I’d take a quick break and start on a fresh page, numbering them each time. In the morning, I could definitely see shifts in the style and coherence with each new glass.

Step two

I typed up all my many pages of writing and printed them out. I then cut up the pages into various strips and re-arranged them into new groupings. This created all sorts of strange sentence fragments, odd structure, and a disjointed (but strangely beautiful) rhythm.

I then typed up the new versions into new documents.

Step three

With this arsenal of prose poetry, I began writing my short play, extracting a story based on three characters: Jimmy, Anna, and Chris.

There was, however, a fourth character: Big Ten. I wasn’t exactly sure who she was, but I knew she was important to Jimmy. I knew she had been a major figure in his city and in his life. I also knew that she was dead.

I cast, rehearsed, designed, and presented the short play at the end of the quarter. It was pretty damn weird.

Years later, the story resurfaces

After graduate school, I found myself embarking on several adventures. I briefly served as an assistant teacher at the inaugural Kenyon Playwrights Conference, where I met my friend Amelia from Los Angeles. I then spent a good year developing and producing a full length play in collaboration with The Araca Project in New York.

My friend Amelia, who connected me to Fresh Produce'd for the first staged reading in LA.

My friend Amelia, who connected me to Fresh Produce'd for the first staged reading in LA.

Eventually, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. When I arrived, I got in touch with Amelia, who was involved with Fresh Produce’d, an ongoing series of staged readings. She told me to send a couple scripts over for them to review. Looking at their site, it seemed like they were into outside-the-box kinds of plays, so I sent them Never Stop.

They said they liked it. And they’d like to do a reading. However, they asked, would I re-write it as a screenplay? So, I did.

It wasn’t easy! Since the original piece was all about language, most of the script was dialogue. I had to make a lot of changes to shift over to a visual medium, while still maintaining the feeling and intention.

I showed up a few weeks later to watch the staged reading. That’s when I met Kim and Luke. That’s when things really started to grow.

Next time: how the next 18 months led to a film shoot I'd never planned on.

The staged reading at Fresh Produce'd.

The staged reading at Fresh Produce'd.