why I am making ‘the black sea’


Thanks for reading. I'd like to underscore for you the vital quality this project has for me, the intertwining of the film's narrative through my own life at the molecular, cellular level. Apologies for the length but stay with it. A story in two parts:

***PART ONE***

Early Autumn, 2004. Recently re-located to Portland, Oregon after years of spec screenplay peddling in Los Angeles, I found myself slightly adrift, not certain how best to approach the coming days, months, years. Leaving LA for an aspirant screenwriter is akin to an eager pilot eschewing airplanes but I was nonetheless still planning to write scripts. In fact, after leaving I made the decision I was not going to write them any longer for someone else to make: I was going to direct them myself.

But I needed the idea first. It had to be fairly easy and cheap to make. And it had to have some sort of hook. So when myself, my wife, her colleague, her colleague's husband, and her colleague's husband's friend found ourselves at a beach house in Arch Cape shakily making ice-breaking conversation one evening, a seed was planted. Something inside me asked: What if one of us disappeared? A tenuous social gathering became a firm frame for the narrative. (note: said colleague and husband are since good friends. In fact they are the ones staring out the window of the beach house window below)

I began outlining, screening, plotting, planning. In late October 2004 I began writing the first draft of the screenplay. It was a slog at first, as the initial stages can be, but I finally cracked it and knew exactly how the story would go: dark and brisk, with rapid-fire dialogue. Seemingly in conjunction with writing the screenplay I started having terrible headaches one week and blurred vision in one eye the next. But those were minor annoyances and I would not relent. The script had to get written so I could direct it. Onward, I shouted (though internally so as not to alarm my wife). I named the movie "the black sea".

Over the next couple weeks I continued writing the screenplay but the blurred eye was making it difficult to read the computer screen. The headaches were persistent. Tiny droplets of fear and anxiety began to swell and multiply. I visited an optometrist. He referred me to an ophthalmologist who determined something called optic neuritis was the likely culprit. An MRI was ordered since optic neuritis can be a harbinger of multiple sclerosis. The MRI would rule MS out and I could return to the land of not-worrying-so-much.

It was late December now, in the zone between Dec 25 and New Year's. I was half-deep in the screenplay pondering how it would all come together in the end. I had the MRI in the AM of Dec 27. The rest of the day was quiet, lazy and unmemorable. That night the ophthalmologist called, leaving an urgent message on the machine for me to call him immediately. He left three phone numbers to reach him at including his home number. My heart fell like a stone to my stomach and my hand trembled as I dialed, praying he would not answer. If he doesn't answer, I thought, then nothing is wrong.

Hello Brian, he said.


"A tumor-like growth" the opthalmologist said. Darkness gushed in, overwhelming all thought and purpose. It was my worst fear realized. From that point on there came in short order, interminable waiting (the holidays!), a series of trap-doors, each leading to the next, referrals and papers, forms and scans and underneath and ribboned throughout it all, black black fear. If you've ever been in a similarly murky and traumatic situation you know that the uncertainty is the worst part. High highs and low lows co-exist all at once, hope and oblivion in the same inhale/exhale. A lifetime lived in an hour. It is not a good place to be.

At last, some 10 days after the phone call, I met with a neurosurgeon. A plan was hatched for surgical resection in early Feb 2005. And in the meantime we acted as best we could, my wife and I, within the confines of daily life. We couldn't fully seal ourselves off from the world, blocking every person and possibility from finding us. We had to live. And so it was that in the 3rd week of January, 10 days before my transsphenoidal surgery that myself, my wife, my wife's colleague, my wife's colleague's husband and two of our close friends found ourselves back at the same beach house most of us had been together at in early autumn. This was an occasion scheduled before the phone call, a weekend jaunt meant to celebrate my wife's birthday. Canceling was not really possible - there were deposits and rearranged schedules and whatnots - and so we went, my wife and I, existing in the living room and on the shore and by the fireplace and at the island in the kitchen but also in our heads, in the dark looming imagined futures that may or may not have contained me any longer. In one instance the weekend was manageable - ample wine, some small talk, some friends - and in another it was the longest duration of my life up to that point.

I include the above paragraph because the sensations I experienced at the beach house that weekend - discomfort, anxiety, displacement, the dualism of parallel worlds, ample wine etc - eventually leached into the screenplay for 'the black sea'. (Have I mentioned that we are shooting 'the black sea' in the very same beach house that all this occurred? well, we are.)

I should be clear here that the screenplay was the furthest thing from my mind in this period. All my focus and strength was summoned to make it through the surgery in February, then through another in March (craniotomy!), then a series of meetings about a series of possibilities about future treatments with a series of medical personnel. It wasn't until June 2005 that I started actively working on the screenplay again. The script had the function of being part of my life that had nothing to do with brain tumors and so my original intent - a quick brisk Hitchcockian disappearance plot - remained in tact. It stayed that way all summer long and into September, when we loaded our belongings and dog into a van and drove across the country to Boston, so I could receive proton beam radiation treatment at Mass General Hospital. This necessitated living in a hotel room for 2 months. (For another perspective, you can read my wife’s take on this time period in her essay A Crooked Still-Life, found here) The screenplay, and by extension the movie that ran in a loop in my head, was a reprieve from what was happening around me, a rejection of the dark possible futures I lived alongside, a refutation of my oblivion.

I finished the radiation. I was given impossibly good odds. We drove back to Portland and to our new lives, post brain-tumor. I spent a year or so celebrating survivorship, adjusting to the new place I resided in, straddling two worlds, cognizant of my good fortune to be drawing breath and fully aware of how thin and tenuous my connection - anyone's connection - to it was. Few comprehend how difficult this place is. You got great news they’d say it’s over. Except it can never be over. It lives alongside me.  It’s been 7 years and the moment of the phone call has just happened. It will always have just happened. Once the yawning gulf of black we walk over is revealed you cannot un-see it.

Some time later I picked up the screenplay for 'the black sea' and found it read like a brisk Hitchcockian disappearance plot but a tepid and lifeless one. A false one. The script was a souvenir from a long-forgot trip, a place that didn't mean anything to me any longer, a place that for all intents and purposes did not exist any longer. And so I began to rewrite it. Leaving the basic idea alone but reshaping tone, register, pitch. Bringing my exposure to said black black fear, allowing it to seep in to the dialogue, in to the narrative. The script was no longer separate from what happened to me, no longer some safe sanitized island divided from its writer. Over years of rewrites it came to contain fear, anxiety, malevolence, friends, cosmology, individualism and ample wine. Above all It came to contain the pitch blackness that lives alongside desperate quaking hope.

This, my friends, is the movie I am making.