I arrived in Los Angeles in mid-May 2001. I’d put a tenant into my condo in Five Points and driven a packed Ford Escort on average about 14 hours a day from Columbia, SC, with overnight stops in Brinkley, AR; Santa Rosa, NM; and outside Phoenix, AZ (I know because I still have those towns circled on an old atlas, for posterity). With the exception of a Super 8 outside Phoenix, I’d stayed in no-name mom-and-pop’s because I wanted to experience “Americana.” These other hotels ended up reminding me of locations in a bad slasher film, but I was so excited to get to L.A., I didn’t care. I’d made three horror features in Columbia, a few contacts in L.A. with a biopic I’d co-written on Edgar Allan Poe (still one of my pet projects I’d like to get made), and just felt it was time to make that leap.
No one is necessarily there to catch you. I knew a handful of people in Los Angeles, but not many. I’d actually had an opportunity years earlier, shortly after graduating from the University of South Carolina, to move out to L.A. and be roommates with a then-girlfriend’s friend who sounded fairly well-connected in the industry. But it’s a good thing I didn’t make the move back then. I’m afraid at that age I would have given up – which so many do, usually within the first year or two – and gone back to Columbia. Los Angeles can be a hard, cruel, and expensive place. I love Columbia – and indeed come back about every year at Christmas time to visit a few friends and would love to make another movie there – but failure (which at that time meant turning tail and returning to Columbia) was not an option. I was determined to make it work.
Bill Cunningham, a former fellow Media Arts student and filmmaking collaborator from South Carolina, was one of the few people I knew in L.A. Bill had been living in Hollywood for a few years, working for a movie distributor. In fact, the first and only other time I had visited L.A., in 1999 I believe it was, Bill had let me stay with him. Bill agreed to let me stay at his place until I got on my feet. It was the proverbial “sleep on the couch” scenario, except I didn’t even have a couch. I slept on a sound blanket on Bill’s floor in his studio apartment for several months. I look back at that time, and it’s kind of hard for me to believe it. But I will say that sound blanket was comfortable, and I slept like a baby. Bill’s building was a five-story apartment building in Hollywood built in the 1920s and with a tiny and terrifying elevator. Bill’s place was on the top floor. The building shook like Jell-O whenever there was an earthquake. But notorious “bad movie director” Ed Wood Jr. (“Plan 9 From Outer Space”) had lived there years before (his widow still lived in the building), and it felt appropriate. It was next to the building William Holden’s character lived in in “Sunset Blvd.,” so there was history all around. I owe Bill a lot for letting me stay there those first months.
My first few days in L.A. I explored and tried to find out as much as I could about my new home. Culture-wise, I was horrified to learn there was not even a Chick-Fil-A there (though eventually one was built in the middle of Hollywood a few years later), and of course no Cromer’s boiled peanuts or Lizard’s Thicket. But there was diversity. You name the food, you could find it there.
But what did I often eat? Ramen noodles. And I took odd jobs, mostly in the telemarketing ranks, as those jobs were fairly easy to come by then and had flexible work hours. The main things I sold were movie investments and mortgage refinances – learning a lot in those fields that would eventually come in handy. Bill and I also together wrote a spec script (“spec” meaning speculative — you’re writing it with the hope of selling it, with no upfront money or client) for an action superstar, as I had a connection to said actor through his agent’s son. Again, like most scripts, that one has yet to be made.
In the summer of 2001, I went to a Fangoria convention at the Pasadena Convention Center. There I talked to Gunnar Hansen (“Leatherface” from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” with whom I’d made two movies in South Carolina). I told him I’d moved to L.A. He suggested I meet his friend Gary Jones, a Michigan filmmaker now in L.A. who had directed him in “Mosquito.” He said Gary had a script that maybe I could help get made. I later contacted Gary, and we agreed to meet. Gary had directed such shows as “Xena” and “Hercules” and was in post-production on a creature movie called “Crocodile 2.” We liked a lot of the same movies and agreed to try to work together on getting some genre projects off the ground.
Occasionally, throughout this time, I would see celebrities. (I would report these “celebrity sightings” in a semi-regular “L.A. Update” I would email to friends, and it quickly became the most popular topic in my “updates.”) One day, when I had an interview for a “real” job at MGM, I rode up in the elevator with none other than Benjamin Bratt. He was a tall and pleasant guy. A friend pointed out Cameron Diaz at a clothing store at the Beverly Center. Bruno Kirby (“City Slickers”) was behind me in the checkout line at the local grocery store. Kiefer Sutherland could be spotted at just about any bar in L.A. at one time or another.
Early one morning, on September 11, 2001, I was awakened (on the floor at Bill’s apartment, of course) by a call from my then-girlfriend, telling me that the Twin Towers had been hit. That day changed a lot of lives forever …
Jeff Miller is a filmmaker from Columbia, SC who now lives in Los Angeles, CA and has produced and/or written 16 feature films to date, including the recently released “Kill ‘Em All,” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme; “ClownTown”; and “Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan.” He can be reached at MillmanPrd@aol.com .