Aspiring actor/comedian/filmmaker moves to LA to make it big but building a successful film career is damn hard and aspiring actor/comedian/filmmaker works for years before ever landing a solid gig. It takes time and money and perseverance to make it in the film biz and probably a little luck. Like that one guy said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” We’ve all heard those stories and we love the ones that have a happy ending.
Today’s guest blogger, Jeff Grace, talks about quitting his day job and moving to LA to work as an actor/comedian/filmmaker. Whether or not luck plays into it, Grace has worked hard to get where he is today and like most aspiring artists, he’s been inspired by someone who did it before him and made it all seem possible.
When I told a buddy that I was writing a blog post about one of my favorite films, Swingers, he replied, “oh, so was The Empire Strikes Back not available?”
I think that comment not only attests to the enduring popularity of the Favreau/Liman classic, but also to the brand of sarcasm that Vince Vaughn’s character Trent has kept alive and well in its many Cable/DVD screenings over the last seventeen years.
Swingers was a film made by a few struggling actors for $200,000 and was so successful, that it’s actually now considered mainstream. Swingers is kind of like pizza… It might be your favorite food, but no one will accuse you of having exotic taste for saying so at a dinner party.
However, in indie film we sometimes spend too much time endorsing the unconventional and don’t give more introspective attention to those more universally embraced. What I’m saying is, if this blog post goes well, I plan to write my next piece on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I remember seeing Swingers with a few friends at the now closed 3 Penny Theater in Chicago in the Fall of 1996. At the time, I had just moved into a house with six guys from college and somehow landed a coveted spot in the advertising training program at Leo Burnett.
At the time, I wasn’t into swing-dancing subculture, I had never been to Los Angeles, and I had zero thoughts about being an actor or a comedian or a filmmaker (although today I’m all three.)
I tell you this because the genius of Swingers is that its unusual specificity made it more relatable to guys in their 20s than any mainstream movie at the time. This wasn’t another L.A. movie that only related to people living in L.A.
The film perfectly captures the universal difficulties of being a guy in your post-collegiate, pre-commitment 20s with the character of “Double Down” Mikey who’s been decimated by the inevitable breakup of his cross-country relationship, the lack of traction in his entertainment career, and his inability to navigate the social intricacies of meeting girls in Los Angeles.
His friend Trent (along with Rob, Charles, and Sue) try to resuscitate his confidence, but ultimately only succeed in dragging him through a series of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” embarrassments.
Vince Vaughn perfectly captures the essence of the alpha-buddy we have all relied upon at one time or another to tap into our inner “Big Bear with claws and fangs” that we sometimes need to get us over a bad spell.
Not only did the film’s story resonate with me on a deeply personal level, Swingers was the first film that made me finally understand that “indie film” wasn’t just a catchy label to describe a certain kind of arthouse movie, but referred to the way the film was made.
Having not yet worked in the entertainment business, I didn’t really understand the precise distinction between studio and indie films. So I remember being blown away reading that Favreau himself wrote the script in just two weeks with Vaughn and he in mind to play the parts, raised $200K, and then hired Doug Liman to shoot the film (often without permits or permission). So not only did I love this film, I now loved how this film was made. It was an inspirational story that stuck with me for a long time. (Read more about Favreau’s story here).
It wasn’t until many years later that I was working at Leo Burnett (no longer a trainee), that the HR rep asked me if I wanted to take advantage of the company’s “continuing education” program where they paid for classes you took at University of Chicago, Northwestern and…Second City. It just so happens I had seen a show at Second City the weekend before. It was an easy decision.
My Second City classes awoke my inner comedian (dare I say “artist”) and soon I was also taking classes at ImprovOlympic. On my first night there, the theater’s co-founder Charna Halpern introduced herself to the class. She did the obligatory name dropping that theaters must do to keep classes full and lights on, and one of those names was Jon Favreau… wait, he was the indie film guy who made my favorite movie, Swingers!
So in a roundabout way, improv was my gateway drug into filmmaking and Swingers was the pipe.
After being cast in a few shows at Second City and becoming a regular stage member of ImprovOlympic, I had the confidence to quit my high-paying advertising job and take a shot at being a full-time comedian/actor/filmmaker.
Shortly after, I moved to L.A. and Los Feliz became my neighborhood with the comfortingly familiar Dresden and Derby (R.I.P.) within walking distance (these are two of the bars prominently featured in the film.)
That first year living in Los Angeles, I found my pack of guys with whom to get “digits from beautiful babies” and to start shooting films of our own (more of the latter than the former).
Remembering the D.I.Y. ethos of Swingers, we formed video comedy group The Vacationeers (Todd Berger, Kevin M. Brennan, Blaise Miller, Jimmy Dean Carlson, and me). YouTube was just becoming a thing and we started making 3-4 short films a month and then showed them to friends at neighborhood music venue Tangier (now a Korean BBQ joint). Eventually our shorts got us some attention from Google and the industry (see our viral Google Maps viral video here) and we had enough traction to raise money for our first film The Scenesters.
Like Swingers, The Scenesters didn’t play Sundance (the cold comfort we and many other filmmakers told ourselves), but we were lucky enough to play at Park City’s other film festival, Slamdance. The festival and cult success of that film led to us shooting It’s A Disaster with bigger names like David Cross, Julia Stiles, and America Ferrera and it secured theatrical distribution through Oscilloscope earlier this year (see it now at iTunes or Netflix.)
After producing and starring in those two films (both expertly written and directed by long time collaborator Todd Berger), I decided to write a script for myself to direct called Folk Hero & Funny Guy. Watch his Kickstarter campaign.
So far starring Alex Karpovsky (HBO’s Girls) and musician Liza Oppenheimer, Folk Hero & Funny Guy is a road trip buddy comedy about a struggling stand-up comic who goes on tour to open for his successful singer-songwriter pal to disastrous results. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I hope my film will one day be compared to Swingers and perhaps many years after that, The Empire Strikes Back.
In LA? Come see Jeff do Stand-Up Tue, November 12 – tix are free – get them here!
Jeff Grace is a comedian, writer, and director who started his career on the stages of Second City and ImprovOlympic in Chicago. He was hired to write political rants for IFC’s Henry Rollins Show after a producer saw Jeff perform stand-up at The Improv in Hollywood. From there, he went on to write and act in MTV’s That Movie Show and Comedy Central’s Atom TV. As a founding member of comedy troupe The Vacationeers, Jeff has written and directed several viral internet videos, the most popular of which, Google Maps, generated six million views, was featured on CNN, and led to Google hiring Jeff to create video content.
As a filmmaker, Jeff produced and starred in two independent feature films that secured theatrical distribution after widespread festival runs. The Scenesters won the 2010 Slamdance “Rosebud Award.” It’s A Disaster, which also stars David Cross, America Ferrera and Julia Stiles, debuted in theaters in April 2013 through distributor Oscilloscope and was the #1 independent film on iTunes in June. With a screenplay written by himself, Folk Hero & Funny Guy will be Jeff’s directorial debut.
Jeff Grace photo credit: Theo & Juliet