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BEACH PILLOWS or: How I Have a Movie Out and Can't Afford to Pay My Cable Bill BEACH PILLOWS or: How I Have a Movie Out and Can't Afford to Pay My Cable Bill
Culture

BEACH PILLOWS or: How I Have a Movie Out and Can't Afford to Pay My Cable Bill

by Sean Hartofilis

January 18, 2014

Beach Pillows is out. I started making it more than 11 years ago on my parents’ dining room table. I wrote maybe half of the script there on Long Island the summer after I graduated college and the rest in Los Angeles, where I drove with my best friend and where we slept on bunk beds in his older brother’s converted office. The movie is about where and whom I’m from. But so much has happened in my life since that first draft. 

My friend had to go home to stand trial and eventually serve a prison sentence for an altercation he had in the spring of his final college year. He hit someone who wasn’t badly hurt and took the fall for some kids who weren’t his friends. I left the bunk beds and rented an apartment. I worked for a director and then a producer, learning about the business of the business, but mostly waterproofing garages, mounting televisions, and driving around. I played professional lacrosse and coached at a high school and a number of camps up and down the coast. I slept in kitchen pantries and on couches, more than one belonging to my friend Ben who started GOOD. I lived in a shack in his yard for six months with the windows blacked out and continued a lifetime education of cinema and storytelling, fueled at a young age watching old movies with my father, adventuring through childhood summers in Ireland, spending time alone reading and drawing, then writing, directing, and editing films in college.    

The script had been optioned twice by then but never turned the corner. There were shorts made and meetings held and “We’re a go” heard, but we never shot a frame. I relied on the kindness of my friends, physically and spiritually. But I grew tired, and I grew restless, sleeping on a hospital bed in a loft on Skid Row surrounded by robots, cats, and addicts. I drove back across the country with my college love and now wife. 

We moved into a small building in Queens where my grandfather, who emigrated from Greece and worked his entire life as a waiter, raised his family, and which he eventually bought and left to my father. He and my mother—who moved from Ireland when she was 18, worked as a maid on Park Avenue, and found my dad waiting tables at a diner she frequented—have lived in the apartment upstairs from my wife and me since they sold our house on Long Island. I steal their WiFi. 

Back in New York I worked in TV, mostly reality, and met with directors who wanted to make Beach Pillows and producers who wanted to finance it. Nothing ever happened. I protected it throughout. I did not want my essential introduction to the world to turn into something it wasn’t, something I felt was less honest and worse. 

I also kept it alive. I continued to breathe into it and make it stronger. I learned more deeply what the story was about, and I grew my ability to tell it. I shot more shorts and wrote more scripts and made all sorts of things. I became the go-to wedding video guy for my family and extended family. People would ask me what I was doing, and I would say whatever I was or wasn’t getting paid to do and also mention the movie. Some people would roll their eyes. But my friends and family always encouraged me, and I could feel their pride in that I was trying to tell their story as much as mine. 

I always believed I would make the movie, and I finally decided it wasn’t a matter of something happening to me, which it never is. It was a matter of me doing something, which it always is. There’s a quote I love from a young Hunter Thompson that I believe sums up the sentiment nicely and visually evokes the film: “Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect—between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.”

I was able to attach the actors, raise the money, assemble the crew, and make the movie. I can’t say why the original optioners or my eventual collaborators responded to the material, or why those who’ve seen the film have connected to it. I had a story I wanted to tell, characters I knew and loved, and the emotional perspective to walk in their shoes as I told it. I tried to make myself feel the way the characters felt with the words I was writing. And I’m hoping audiences feel that way when they see it. We shall see. 

Preproduction to filming to post, festival submissions through distribution…everything has brought its own challenges. It’s insane to think anything great will come easy. But greatness—truth through beauty—has been the consistent objective, and this is very much the movie I was trying to make. I’m happier with it and prouder of it than anything I’ve ever done. And I couldn’t have done it without my family, friends, crew, actors, investors, Jesse Hoy, and all of the wonderful musicians who supplied their work. Their belief in me made it possible. I consider myself to have been blessed by them. And now the movie is here. 

Everybody wants to be happy. I’m not sure everyone can do what they love for a living. I don’t believe you have to do what you love for a living to be happy. I imagine it might help. But I think you need to be a good person to be happy. I’ve met various jerks ranging widely in profession and material success and not one seemed happy to me. Plenty of things can help you become a good person—good family and friends most of all, I think. 

This has yet to become a living for me. I don’t know if it will. It’s my dream. I would love to spend the rest of my life making movies, and I have so many stories I’m excited to tell. But I never did this for the purpose of making money. I’ve had little money my entire life, and I currently have the least I’ve ever had. I have a movie out On Demand (and iTunes), for example, but I can’t afford to pay my cable bill. I’ve never been happier. 

I’m doing this because I have stories, ideas, and emotions I feel the need to communicate, and I’ve spent my life developing the tools I believe necessary to do it. My hope is that these ideas and emotions are shared, and that people appreciate the effort, care, and purpose I took in presenting them. I love great characters and stories and tried to exalt human emotions to a heroic scale. The particular gripe has perhaps become cliché, but I think it’s important for people to see stories about people. Our unique ability is to share the experience of existence. There are no supermen coming to save us. If salvation is our goal, and I think it’s a pretty good one, we have to seek and find it ourselves. There’s not much growth in being saved. No redemption. Plenty of good people have tried to show us the way, but it’s up to us to live those lessons and save ourselves. 

Movies and music and books inspired me from an early age. By virtue of me loving them, they became part of my life. They became part of me. The glory of art can provide an incredibly redemptive force. If it’s true and beautiful, it can last forever and affect people forever. In that way, it can be like a religion, communicating worlds past, present, and yet to be. I’m Catholic. I love it. My wife and I visited St. Peter’s Basilica on our honeymoon, and it’s the most breathtaking museum of art I’ve ever entered. I think Martin Scorsese is our greatest modern artist. And I like what Pope Francis is saying more than any seated politician. The conflict and suffering of life is so deep, so profound and inevitable, it can only be tempered, and perhaps appreciated, by the promise of something better. Family and friends. Beauty and joy. Song and dance. That’s why to me a great film, or any great work of art, should have everything in terms of the human emotional experience. I want it to be dramatic and funny and scary and thrilling and heartbreaking and joyful and everything else all at once. Scorsese, Chaplin, Ford, Capra, Hawks, Welles, Huston, Hitchcock, Kazan, Wilder, Ozu, Fellini, Truffaut, Kubrick, Cassavetes, Ashby, Lumet, the Coen brothers, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, and plenty more that we all love are very much telling personal stories. Think of a great performer like Jack Nicholson or John Lennon or Richard Pryor or whomever you like. They’re always funny and sexy and scary and profound, and always real. It all needs to be in there, because it’s all in life. That’s very important. Life is important. People are important. And I don’t think they should ever forget it. I’m making movies I want to last. I’m hoping to give people something they can keep forever. 

I realize I’ve written a lot here, but I’ve tried to be concise. It’s been eleven years. People I love have died and been born. It’s actually been longer than eleven years because another best friend and I had the conceptive Beach Pillows conversation much earlier. It started off as a piece of merchandise, an idea to be comfortable at the beach, but became I suppose a quest to be comfortable with one’s contribution to the world. And the journey to that point is anything but comfortable. I think that’s the only other thing I can say about the process of doing this. There may be many roads to the mountaintop, but if you hope to find what you’re looking for, none are without obstruction. The obstructions can do two things: send you back down the mountain, or strengthen your muscles so you’re more prepared to traverse the next one. And there will always be a next one, until the last one. Float or swim.  

Beach Pillows is the story of someone deciding what he wants to be and becoming it, and the story of everyone and everything he couldn’t have become it without. Thank you with all of my heart to everyone in the credits of the film and everyone who watches it.

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