Archive for December 2011

Lost in Venice

December 24, 2011

Note: This is from a Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper column that appeared in their 2008 Christmas Day print edition. Of all the articles, columns, blogs and other stuff I’ve written over the years, this one best sums up the story of my life… and why I feel so grateful to be where I am today. Mele Kalikimaka!

A Wrong Turn Leads to the Right Place by Rich Figel

Like many people, my wife and I collect Christmas ornaments as souvenirs from places we’ve traveled to. My favorite is a delicate piece from Venice made of green, white and red glass shaped into candles. It’s missing one candle though. That’s why it holds special meaning for me.

In recovery, we’re taught to live in the present because we can’t undo the past. I try not to dwell on the wrong turns I made. But I can’t minimize the wreckage alcohol and drugs caused in my life either. My flame could have been snuffed out by two drunk driving accidents I had when I was a reporter in New Jersey, fresh out of college. I was lucky. No one was injured by my reckless disregard for others. Instead of giving up drinking, however, I gave up driving and moved to New York.

All of that was a distant memory when Isabel and I took our first trip to Italy in the summer of 1999. This was a reward of sorts for living sober. To make the most of it, we studied guidebooks, listened to Italian language tapes in the car and carefully planned our itinerary months in advance. Nothing was left to chance — or so we thought.

After nearly 24 hours of flying economy class and long layovers in Newark and London, we arrived in Venice. Our luggage did not. Wearing smelly clothes, we checked into our hotel on the Lido, a small island across the lagoon. International movie stars flock here for the annual Venice film festival. But when we opened the door to our room, my wife’s face dropped. It looked dingy and rundown, nothing like the charming photographs on the website. The trip of a lifetime was off to a disappointing start.

Things began to look better the next morning. The hotel’s breakfast room had a a glorious view of San Marco, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are located. We hopped on the vaporetto, an unglamorous water bus, and as we cruised down the Grand Canal, I became oblivious to the stifling heat and the B.O. of tourists crowded around us. I only saw the fading grandeur of this dream of a city.

Venice on foot is a different matter. The guidebooks are useful as long as you stay close to the major tourist sites. Venture into the heart of the city, and you soon discover that streets often go by two names, smaller canals and bridges don’t correspond with maps, and many passageways are dead ends. We got completely lost, which can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. But we were like those couples on “The Amazing Race” TV show, who blame each other for every mishap. When we returned to the hotel and saw our luggage had been delivered, I thought we had turned the corner.

Wrong again. The next day was even hotter. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden in Italy’s centuries-old churches, so we had to dress appropriately and sweat it out in line with hundreds of others who were waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. You’ve probably seen pictures of it: the Byzantine domes in the background while lovers embrace amid flocks of pigeons. Since we were quarreling, the grubby birds were merely a nuisance to us. We came to see the church treasures — not for romance.

A group of German tourists were ahead of us. They seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them. Awed by the marble geometric designs under our feet and the ornate ceilings above, I missed the entrance sign for the museum where the church relics are displayed. Before we knew it, Isabel and I were back outside the Basilica. Despite my pleas of ignorance, a guard told us we had to stand in line again if we wanted to reenter.

Screw it, I said. We decided to move on to a less famous church. According to our map, Santi Giovanni was a short walk from there. But I made a wrong turn somewhere. What should have been a 10-minute stroll became another frustrating excursion that stretched into an hour of wandering around in a steamy maze.

Finally, we found Santi Giovanni. It is huge. Inside, the soaring vaulted arches resembled the bow of a gigantic wooden ship turned upside down. The stained glass windows and altars were works of art. Yet it felt strangely empty to me. We walked over to another section that was like a small chapel. As we were leaving, a priest walked past us with a beatific smile on his face.

Back in the main area we saw the German tourists again, standing in the center of the church. The men had cameras around their necks and their heads were bowed. They stood in a circle, holding hands, and began to sing a hymn in perfect harmony. Their voices filled the church. It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

Tears streamed down my face. Perhaps it was their devotion, or the acoustics … or maybe it was the collective effects of being weary and flustered, but the church that seemed cold and dead to me was brought to life by their singing. I looked at Isabel and she was crying too. Neither of us is religious, but I felt blessed to be there with her. Had we not gotten lost and taken so many wrong turns, we would not have been here to witness this moment. I held my wife’s hand and listened in rapt wonder.

When the men finished, they simply smiled at each other — the same smile I saw on the priest’s face as he walked past us. Then the Germans quietly left and we never saw them again.

That was in 1999. Two years later, after the devastation of 9/11, we went through the ritual of decorating our Christmas tree. It was a somber time. Isabel’s business, which depended on tourists visiting Hawaii, was struggling. I worried about the future, and stopped writing. What was the point? Nothing made sense.

A couple of days later, the tree toppled over. It was a mess. The strands of lights were tangled and twisted. Ornaments were strewn about. A glass candle from the Venice piece had broken off. Isabel was at work, so I asked a neighbor to help me stand the tree back up. I restrung the lights and was able to glue together some of the broken ornaments, but the glass candle wouldn’t hold. I couldn’t fix that one.

While I was washing my hands and thinking to myself that the tree didn’t look quite as nice as it did before, I heard a commercial on TV. It said it was all right to grieve for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but the best way to respond to terrorism is to live.

I broke down and cried. There I was, fretting and cursing earlier because our tree fell over and some ornaments broke. It was nothing compared to what happened three months before. I thought about the church in Venice, and how lost I felt at different times in my life. I can’t say if it was chance or fate that I survived the car wrecks and alcoholism, to wind up here with Isabel in Hawaii. I can only wonder, and be grateful for what I have.

So each year when I unwrap that ornament, I remember how fragile life is. I think about the missing candle, and it puts everything in perspective.

*******

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A Simple Gift

December 20, 2011

I originally posted this piece in my Honolulu Star-Advertiser blog, but felt the story reaches beyond the local audience in Hawaii. Mele Kalikimaka, as we say here in the islands…

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In addition to producing the Career Changers TV show for Oceanic Time Warner’s OC16 channel, I was commissioned to create short videos about human trafficking in Hawaii. Our first one, which can be viewed at www.808HALT.com, focuses on the sex trade and how local organizations are helping survivors rebuild their lives. The second video will be about trafficking related to agriculture. However, it was difficult to interview actual victims for a couple of reasons: they were fearful of being deported if they went public, and many do not speak English.

Through Nora at the Pacific Gateway Center (mother of Project Runway fashion designer Andy South) we were able to sit down with a Thai farm worker named Samian. His tale is similar to many trafficking victims. They had a simple plan. Come to America through recruiters, make enough in the first year to pay off the fee ($15K to $20K each), then send back money to their families during the second and third year. Considering they were making less than $2K per year in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam, you can see why it seemed like a good idea on paper. But there was no way they could ever pay off the recruiters’ fees and make a profit because they also had to pay for food and housing in an expensive place to live.

Samian’s odyssey began over six years ago. He left behind a wife, a toddler and a young son. I’m not sure of exact ages and dates because much was lost in the translation — even Samian had trouble recounting the details. Through Global Horizon, the company that imported these foreign laborers for farm owners, he was sent to Florida… Colorado… New York… Washington state… then he worked in California before he wound up on the Big Island. Of all the farms, he said conditions were the worst in Hawaii. He lived in a 2-room shack with eight men sharing one bathroom. They often went hungry because they weren’t paid what they were promised or only given small increments.

It took years for him to be certified as a trafficking victim. But with the help of immigration attorneys and the Pacific Gateway Center, he was reunited with his two sons in Hawaii. By then, his wife had divorced him, and the boys had grown up in his absence. Can you imagine being separated from your kids for five or six years at such a young age? Yet many of these foreign laborers are willing to leave for two or three years just to provide a better life for their families. That kind of sacrifice is not unusual for them.

My cameraman and I drove up to Samian’s farm on the North Shore last week. Through the Pacific Gateway Center, he was given a small loan to raise and sell fish (tilapia and giant catfish). Unfortunately, it hasn’t been making much money, so he’s attempting to level out the hilly farm land and intends to plant lemon trees and grow bananas. When we first arrived at the farm, Nora wasn’t there to translate and we had a hard time communicating. He would gesture and speak a word or two of English, but to be truthful, I really didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying.

He picked up a folding table, carried it across the field he’s been trying to level by hand (no tractor), then carried over four white plastic chairs to the spot. We just needed to pick up some b-roll shots of Samian and Nora walking around the farm — background stuff. I guess he thought we were going to do another sit-down interview though, so he was trying to find a good spot for us in the shade with a nice view of the valley below. He brought over a plastic wash basin in which he had bottled water for us. I sat and waited for Nora, but she got stuck in a typical North Shore traffic jam, which happens whenever surf is up and the two-lane road gets clogged with residents and visitors who want to see big waves.

After awhile, I walked over to Samian’s house on the farm. It’s really a shack, but he doesn’t have to share it with a bunch of other men, and he has a satellite dish, plus running water and electricity — unlike some of the other places he lived in over the past few years. I noticed he had a stalk of apple bananas propped against the front wall and a green coconut next to it. Probably tomorrow’s breakfast, I thought. When I turned, I saw Samian was moving the table and chairs over to the area where I was now standing, about a hundred yards away. I tried to tell him it wasn’t necessary since we we didn’t need the chairs or table. But he just wanted to accommodate us and make me feel comfortable while we were visiting.

Finally, Nora arrived and began translating to Samian what kind of shots we wanted to get. I asked if he had photos of his family from before he left Thailand. He went inside and rummaged around. Five minutes later, he emerged with a broken picture frame that had some photos of the boys. Nora explained to me that the oldest son (age 18) is living in town now. The 8-year-old is living with Samian on the farm, which is difficult because Samian speaks no English and the boy is trying to adapt to school here. I kept thinking to myself how hard it must be for him and his sons…

After we finished filming, I was about to get in my car and Samian waved at me. He picked up the banana stalk and coconut to give them to me. There had to be at least fifty tiny green and yellow apple bananas on that stalk — and I didn’t know how to crack open a green coconut or what I would do with it if I succeeded. But I couldn’t say no to his act of generosity. I’m not sure if he had intended to give them to me from the start, or if it was just a spontaneous gesture.

When I got home, I shared the bananas with my neighbors and told them they came from a farmer in Kahuku. They have no idea how many miles that man has traveled, how many hours he’s toiled in fields all over the U.S., or how many years he was separated from his children, relatives and friends in a faraway country. Yet he wanted to give me something of his for no other reason than kindness.

It made me think about how fortunate I am. It is a gift I will always remember.

******

Addendum: I mentioned that Nora is the mother of Andy South, a finalist on the Project Runway television series a couple of years ago. She was a refugee from Laos, who came to Hawaii after the Vietnam War. The Pacific Gateway Center helped her family get settled before Andy was born. And now she works as a translator for them, assisting people like Samian. (Here’s a video we did about Nora and PGC.)

I wanted to get Christmas gifts for Samian and his sons, so she asked him what they would like. For himself, he wanted a rechargeable hunting flashlight because he sometimes has to check out noises on the farm at night. He said the 8-year-old would like a handheld electronic game, and the older son could use a nice dress shirt. That’s all he asked for.

Getting the Call

December 17, 2011

Sorry for the long delay between posts! My wife and I are going to Australia in January as part of our Grand Slam tennis tour — we’ve been to the French Open in Paris and U.S. Open in New York, so after Melbourne next month, we just need to do Wimbledon to complete the circuit. We also combine a love of art with our tennis travels, and like to watch movies/TV shows about certain artists and read up on them before we visit museums that display their works. When you know something about the person holding the brush and the subject they portrayed, it changes the way you view each piece. It becomes a living thing.

While my blog is no work of lasting art, I try to instill a sense of who I am and why I feel compelled to share my stories. Unfortunately, not everyone I write about agrees with my representation of the way things happened. I recently got an email from one such person, a highly respected Hollywood professional, who asked me to delete some old posts that mentioned him by name. In rereading those entries, I saw why he was a little perturbed that I shared personal information about him that wasn’t meant for public consumption. So I deleted the entries and apologized to him… and will be more careful about naming names in the future. You never know who is Googling themselves!

In any event, I’ve been extremely busy trying to put together my next two Career Changers TV episodes before we depart Honolulu. Each monthly half-hour show usually consists of four or five segments that run between three to five minutes each. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually harder to produce shorter pieces because you have to trim each story to the bone without losing the meat of it. You have to get your interview subjects to focus on the key turning points and convey real emotion on camera, which is not easy for most non-actor types.

Which brings me back to the original point of this post: how to act when you get a call from an agent, manager or producer after you’ve done the hard work of writing your script and getting people to read it. In my last post, I mentioned how my Eddie Murphy contact led to me writing a pitch that wound up in the hands of an agent at WME. His call came unexpectedly at night while I was watching TV. That was good because I didn’t have time to get nervous waiting to speak with him. Even though I’ve had a few calls from managers/agents and producers, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I talk to those types. Ironically, when I put on my local TV producer hat or direct shoots, it’s me who has to put the subject at ease and tell them there’s nothing to be nervous about when the camera goes on.

And I think that’s the main thing you have to remember when you have a phone meeting or get face time with industry execs and reps. They’re just people once you get to know them. But we tend to worry so much about what they will think of us that we forget to ask them something about themselves. I asked the WME agent how he got the job there. It turned out his background was in the news biz — and since I started out as a newspaper reporter, we had plenty to chat about before returning to the project at hand. More importantly, I had a better idea of where he was coming from and the kind of things he was personally interested in… which gave me the confidence to pitch him a TV series idea in the same convo that he really liked — and wants to see pages for that too.

But my first Hollywood phone calls did not go so well. The year I was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival screenwriting comp, a snooty assistant from Nick Osbourne’s Underground Management company, rang me up to request my script. He said they had a first-look deal with Phoenix Pictures — Mike Medavoy’s company. The name sounded familiar, but I didn’t connect it with the Oscar winning movies he was associated with. The assistant asked for my email address so he could send me the release and details on where to mail my screenplay.

I was so nervous though that I accidentally left out part of my email address — and I hung up without taking down their phone number. I also blanked out on the name of the company. All I could remember was Medavoy and Phoenix Pictures. It didn’t occur to me to use the star 69 phone feature to call back. Instead I called Phoenix and said someone with a first look deal with them had contacted me, but I didn’t know the guy’s name or his number. I also referred to Medavoy as “Mark” and the Phoenix assistant sort of snickered at me through the phone and said, “It’s MIKE Medavoy.” Oh, okay. He did connect me with Nick’s assistant, however. (Nick himself was very nice and actually called me after he read my script to tell me he didn’t care for it much.)

After that first botched call, I made a point of writing all my important personal contact info on my desk pad calendar: email address, phone number with area code, cell number and mailing address — just in case I blank out when I get an important call. Yeah, I know it sounds silly, but even intelligent people can become blithering idiots when they feel intimidated by Very Important People. I also keep my loglines and short pitches on my desktop to use as cheat sheets during phone meetings. The most important thing, however, is to let them do the talking and really listen to what they’re saying before you launch into your spiel or tell that witty anecdote you’ve been saving for the VIP. Always leave them wanting more.