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Hollywood Barbarians

Updated: Jan 27

How two broke ex-jocks moved to Hollywood, taught themselves filmmaking, and then ambushed Ed Harris, convincing him to star in their movie. 


Image Source: Wikimedia

“Go confidently in the path of your dreams, live the life you’ve imagined.”

-       Henry David Thoreau


Fuck It, Let’s Go

 

Picture this: You and your twin brother (if you had a twin brother) are in your early twenties, and your minor league baseball careers just fizzled out due to injuries.  Up until this point in your life, you’ve only dreamed of playing pro baseball.  But now those dreams are gone.  You’re lost at sea and don’t know what to do next.  You have no money, no education, and no skills other than hitting a baseball.  Then out of the blue, your brother offers an idea with even longer odds than playing pro baseball.  

 

“Let’s move to LA and make a movie about dad,” he says.  “It could star that guy who looks like dad, that dude from The Right Stuff and The Rock.  What’s his name, again?”   

 

“Ed Harris,” you reply. 

 

“Yeah, that’s him!  We could get Ed Harris to play dad in our movie.”

 

Smelling your bro’s breath for alcohol and plumes of weed, you finally exclaim, “We have no money, no jobs, no connections, no education, and no movie making experience.  Plus, our piece-of-shit car probably won’t make it from Arizona to LA.  And even if it did, where would we live!?”

 

“Pietro from back home rents a room in LA for $300 a month.  I bet he’ll let us crash with him,” your brother says.  “And guess what, he lives in Hollywood!”

 

Young, dumb, and full of… well you know… you exhale and say, “Fuck it, man. Let’s go.”

 

And so begins one of the great American clichés -- the dream of making it in Hollywood. One that’s conjured by many and realized by few. 

 

Yet, this story I’m telling isn’t just hypothetical.  Twenty-five years ago, it happened.  These ex-jock barbarians drove to LA, taught themselves the movie trade, and then ambushed Ed Harris, convincing him to star in their movie.  In fact, he ended up starring in two of their movies.

 

So this week, I’m going to tell you how these two guys, two dear friends of mine, did it.  And if their vigor, wonder, and fellowship doesn’t inspire you to chase your own barbarian dreams, then nothing will.

 

Humble Beginnings

 

Of all my friends, none have had a more hard-scrabble childhood than Logan and Noah Miller.  Their alcoholic (yet loving) father was in and out of jail, often homeless, and almost always drank and gambled away his earnings as a roofer.  Their mother struggled with mental illness, worked full-time as a waitress, and did her best to raise two rowdy boys.  As for their uncle, he was murdered in a drug deal gone bad, shot four times, and stuffed into the back of a trunk.  As for their grandmother, she doused herself in gasoline and lit the match. 

 

“We recognized early on that we weren’t going to get anywhere in life through privilege,” they said. Fortunately, they had a way to escape their deprivations and get ahead in life.  They had baseball.  That is, until they didn’t.

 

Stuck in Arizona after being cut from spring training, they had few prospects.  Maybe a manual labor job back home in the Bay Area, or maybe – and let’s be perfectly frank -- a life of crime. 

 

Fortunately, Logan and Noah have always been dreamers, and more importantly, doers.  “We always dreamed about doing great things,” they said, “and knew that we had to do more than just dream.  There had to be action behind those dreams.”

 

So when Noah offered up the crazy idea of moviemaking in Hollywood, it suited them just fine.  They’d been fighting the odds their entire life, so why stop now.  And with that, they aimed what would soon be “the worst car in Los Angeles” west on the 10 Freeway and rolled into the world capital of dreamers and hustlers: Hollywood, California.

 

Arriving at Pietro’s $300 bedroom inside an apartment he shared with a rocker dude and his Japanese girlfriend who spoke no English, the twins soon noticed the rats, roaches, pimps, whores, junkies, crackheads, and homeless orbiting their new dreamscape.  Welcome to Paradise City, boys.

 

For weeks, they slept on Pietro’s floor.  On colder nights, all three of them slept tight on Pietro’s mattress.  For food, they ate peanut butter sandwiches because they offer the most caloric bang for your buck.  For money, they worked at a bingo parlor until they got fired and then as security at an after-hours club until a coked-up maniac shoved a gun in Noah’s face.  As for their education, they walked into the public library and asked for books on “how to make movies.”  Their first lesson was that a written movie is called a “screenplay.”  They had no backup plan.   

 

Alright folks, before I continue our story here, I want to hit pause for a second.  If you’re an odds maker in Vegas, what are the odds that these two clueless nobodies convince a four-time Academy Award nominee to star in their movie?  Okay, moving on.  

 

After reading a few books on screenplays, the Miller brothers began to write.  And when I say “write,” I mean longhand on a yellow notepad because they had no computer.  As one PB sandwich turned into hundreds, they eventually completed their first draft of Touching Home, a screenplay about their relationship with their dad. 

 

Struggling on every word and sentence, they eventually plowed through dozens of drafts of Touching Home.  As the months ticked by, they wrote eleven more screenplays during their first year in LA.  They wrote, wrote, and wrote… and every time they finished a script, they’d buy a bottle of cheap wine, climb their apartment building’s rattling fire escape, and ascend to the rooftop.  Sitting high above the urban mayhem below, they’d pass the bottle back and forth, taking swigs as they stared out over the city of lights, dreaming – excuse me, foreseeing – that one day they’d be making their own movies.

 

Vigor

 

As they wrote and hustled, they occasionally visited their dad in jail or in the aluminum shed where he lived when out of jail.  Every time they saw him, he’d ask something like, “Has Ed Harris agreed to be in our movie yet?”  And every time they’d nod and answer, “we’re working on it, pops.” 

 

And boy were they ever.  For eight years, these barbarians attacked Hollywood like Huns on a village.  But with every attack came another defeat.  Their script for Touching Home was rejected hundreds of times by hundreds of agents, producers, and studio execs.  Eventually as the years passed, they did win a few skirmishes thanks to their monastic discipline towards writing.  One such victory came when a sympathetic producer finally said, “you guys need a break” and leant them hundreds of thousands of dollars in movie making equipment.  

 

With their borrowed gear, they somehow scraped together a skeleton crew of sound guys and cinematographers for a road trip to Arizona to film a trailer for Touching Home. With the help of an old baseball pal, they all snuck into the Colorado Rockies spring training baseball stadium one night, turned on the lights, and filmed guerrilla style.    

 

To pay the film crew and every other logistical expense along the way, they went $50,000 in debt -- maxing out seventeen credit cards, or “plastic time bombs” as they called them.   And after seven brutal years of writing, grinding, and hustling, they had paid their tuition, earned their education, and taught themselves how to make movies.  They also had something to show for it: a professionally filmed and edited two-minute movie trailer.  

 

Through it all, they lived by the Miller Brothers mantra: “Either you’re in or you’re in the way.”  They were going to make this movie or die trying.

 

The Ambush

 

If you didn’t already know, Hollywood is all about leverage.  The fastest way to get a movie made is to have a star agree to do it.  Having one big name in your quiver can attract other actors, plus directors and producers, who desperately want to work with your star.  And once you’ve got them on board, it’s time to knock on a studio door, show them what and who you got, and ask them to pay for it.

 

But without Ed Harris on board, the Miller brothers weren’t going anywhere.  But with Ed, they might have enough leverage to gather a crew of professionals to join the project, plus the millions they’d need to make their dream a reality.

 

If they tried to contact Ed through the usual means – i.e. his agent, lawyer, or manager -- they’d get nowhere.  That’s because Ed’s gatekeepers only make money when Ed makes money, taking a percentage of his paydays. As a result, these suits had no interest in independent filmmakers like the Miller twins. In fact, if they had their way, Ed would do nothing but big-budget / China-friendly superhero movies.   

 

With the front door locked, Logan and Noah had to find a way to bypass Ed’s gatekeepers and go direct to their man.  When they saw that the San Francisco International Film Festival was honoring Ed with a lifetime achievement award, they saw their chance.  Unable to afford the actual ceremony and dinner, they bought two tickets for the following night when Ed would be interviewed at the Castro Theatre.

 

Arriving at the Castro the minute the doors opened, the twins began their pre-operation reconnaissance with military precision.  Seeing that the first four rows were cordoned off for press and donors, they set up shop in the fifth row and began casing the theater, doing what we Marines call “probing the enemy’s lines” – i.e. looking for strong points to avoid and weak points to exploit.  

 

After checking the doors, windows, balcony, and closets where they found a Twix bar (which they ate), Noah walked into the men’s room near the stage and struck up a conversation with a security guy wearing a headset and microphone.  Here’s how it went down, and I still can’t believe Noah did this. 

 

Walking up to the adjacent urinal, Noah looked over to the guy and asked, “You do this a lot?”

 

“What, take a piss?” he replied.

 

“No, security details” Noah chuckled.   

 

“Only the festival.  Worked it the last three years.”

 

Sensing his moment, Noah replied, “When is Ed coming?”

 

Okay, I’m going to hit the narrative brakes one last time.  You may not know this -- and I don’t mean to brag! – but I am a security expert.  I’ve protected talent at events like this in the past.  So let me tell you, had I been Ed Harris’ bodyguard and a guy came into the men’s room asking “When is Ed going to arrive?” my next question would be, “Why do you ask?”

 

How he answered that next question would determine whether I ejected him from the venue, or at the very least, watched him like a hawk for the rest of the evening while texting his photo to every other security guard at the venue with “NO ACCESS!” beneath it. 

 

Fortunately for Noah, this security guy was like most security guards: apathetic.  He just answered, “I don’t know,” zipped up his fly, and walked away.   

 

As the theater began filling with people, Logan and Noah sat fidgeting in their aisle seats across from one another in the fifth row. 

 

Plan A

 

From those aisle seats, they planned to engage Ed as he walked down the aisle towards the stage.  Along the way, they’d show him the two-minute trailer on their laptop, pitching him before he could reach the stage. 

 

But Ed didn’t walk down the aisle.  Instead, he entered the stage from backstage. 

 

As the other thirteen hundred plus in the audience stood up and cheered, the twins sunk despondently into their seats.  With the four rows in front of them reserved, along with security covering the steps to the stage, their chances of encountering Ed were dwindling.


Plan B

 

After Ed finished with his interviewers on stage, the moderator opened up Q&A for the audience.  As ushers walked the aisles carrying mics, the twins leapt from their seats flailing their hands in the air hoping to get picked.  Spotting their desperation, the ushers wisely dodged them, choosing calmer humans in the audience instead.  After the Q&A ended, Logan truly thought their chance to speak with Ed was gone.

 

Plan C

 

But then, like Wyatt Earp charging across the creek to blast Curly Bill, Noah said, “Fuck this!”  Either you’re in or you’re in the way.  

 

Rising from his seat, he walked with his head up and shoulders back towards the stage, evoking the cardinal rule for any good gate crasher: act like you belong.

 

Watching Noah strut down the aisle with a Hollywood “do you know who I am?!” attitude, Logan got up and followed his brother into battle.  Walking right past security before they could say a word, the Miller brothers strode right up the steps, onto the stage, and through the back curtains.  But once backstage they heard, “Excuse me!” Staring at them was a no-nonsense woman who said, “what are you doing back here?” Remembering the cardinal rule, Noah said, “we are THEEEE independent filmmakers and we’re here to talk to Ed Harris.”

 

Not wanting to be the one who prevents Ed Harris from missing his appointment with THEEE independent filmmakers, she paused for a second as they walked past her.


Collecting herself, she turned and roared, “Absolutely not!  You’re not going anywhere!  Get outta here!” she exclaimed, shoving them back through the curtain and onto the stage. 

 

Please!

 

After their three plans – the aisle trap, the Q&A, and the frontal attack – failed, our heroes had one option left: beg, beg, beg. 

 

“Look,” Noah said, “we’re local independent filmmakers.  We’re shooting a movie up here, and we want to speak with Ed about it.  Would you please see if he’ll talk to us for two minutes?”

 

Cooling her anger, she said “I’m a filmmaker as well.”

 

“Where are you from?” Logan asked. 

 

“Arizona.”

 

“We used to live in Tucson,” he said, and “we just filmed down there a couple weeks ago.” 

 

“Really?” she said. “I love Tucson.” 

 

Sensing her demeanor soften, Logan pleaded, “Could you please see if Ed will talk to us for two minutes? That’s it.”

 

Staring at them for a second, she turned away, disappearing behind the curtain -- all while the cops and security the twins had just bypassed stared at them with contempt. 

 

Twenty seconds later, he appeared. “Ed Harris,” introducing himself.  “What do you boys got?”

 

Stunned with their hearts racing, they blurted out, “We’re local independent filmmakers and we wrote a story about us and our father.”

 

“Keep going,” Ed said.   

 

“Our father was homeless for the last fifteen years of his life, battling alcoholism.  It’s a coming-of-age story about a father trying to make amends with his sons as they pursue professional baseball.”

 

As Ed nodded, Logan opened his laptop.  “Here’s the trailer we just put together.”  Pressing play, the backstage lighting washed out the screen and the chatter from the audience and stagehands made listening impossible.

 

“Ed, do you mind if we go into the alley?” Noah asked.

 

“Sure.”

 

As they walked towards the exit, a tall woman in thin glasses with flaring nostrils growled to the twins, “You have two minutes and then you two are outta here!”  And who could blame her; her job was to ensure the talent went unmolested from autograph seekers or desperate people handing them tapes, CDs, or even worse, luring them into a dark alley to watch their trailer.

 

Turning to flaring nostrils, Ed held an unlit cigarette between his fingers and said, “excuse me, could you please get me match?” 

 

“Absolutely, Mr. Harris,” she said, storming off and yelling, “Match!!!” to her backstage underlings. 

 

Stepping into the dark alley behind the theater, Logan set the laptop on a greasy dumpster and hit Play. Ed stepped close to the screen while taking a drag from his cigarette, staring intently and even nodding a few times as he watched the two-minute trailer.

 

“This looks beautiful,” he said.  “Looks like you guys know what you’re doing.”

 

Watching Logan throw a frozen rope from home plate to third base, Ed said, “Nice throw!  That was really you, wasn’t it?”  Logan replied, “Yeah,” telling Ed he played High A ball for the Toronto Blue Jays until injuries ended his career.

 

Ed smiled and said, “I used to be a catcher too and always dreamed of playing in the big leagues.”

 

When the trailer ended, Ed asked, “Did you guys go to film school?”

 

“No, sir,” they replied.  

 

“Neither did I,” he said.

 

Then the inevitable question came: “Do you boys have any actors attached?”

 

“Brad Dourif,” they responded.  Not a lie, but a huge stretch as Brad’s agent had expressed some interest over the phone.

 

After handing Ed their script and contact information, he promised to read it and get back to them within a week.  Putting out his cigarette, Ed said, “Good show, fellas.” He shook their hands and then turned away, walking down the alley with his people. 

 

As Ed and his crew walked down the alley towards Castro Street, they began to fade into the fog and blurring streetlights.  Looking back on that moment, Logan and Noah said, “we stood there beside the dumpster… and didn’t want to step out of the dream.”

 

Mission Accomplished

 

In the end, Ed Harris agreed to star in their movie for three grand – the lowest amount he was permitted to accept under the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG). 

 

From the moment Ed shook on their deal until the movie’s release a year later, the twins lived life on the brink of madness and exhaustion.  They were still $50k in debt, their borrowed equipment could be seized at any time, and they had no cast or crew.  But they did have Ed Harris!  And they would use that name to recruit a cast and crew who wanted an “Ed Harris film” on their resumes.  And eventually after thousands of peanut butter sandwiches and gallons of coffee, plus more than a few 3am panic attacks, Logan and Noah Miller found an investor to front the $2 million needed to make their movie and fulfill their promise to their now deceased father.


Image Source: IMDb

When they finally wrapped Touching Home in 2008, they did what pros do -- they started writing their next screenplay and then another and another and another.  They also wrote one of the most inspiring memoirs I’ve ever read about their experience making this movie – a book every aspiring filmmaker should read.

 

Looking back on their tenacity, Ed Harris said, “What the Miller Brothers have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous.”

 

The Luckiest Guy I Know

 

After multiple movies and books, Logan and Noah still don’t live in a Brentwood mansion or drive a black Tesla.  They live in a two-bedroom, one bath, rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica.   They wake up every morning except Sundays at 4:30am, hit Gold’s Gym in Venice at 5am, and after a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and probably peanut butter, they retreat into their home office which doubles as Logan’s bedroom. 

 

With Logan’s mattress stuffed into the closet to create more space, and their books piled everywhere and notecards pinned across their wall, these barbarian brothers step into the arena for another day of battle, writing their stories and chasing their dreams.  Never in my life have I met two guys with more focus, discipline, and above all, optimism.  I’m at a loss for words right now… these two pals of mine are incredible human beings.

 

---

 

Often on Wednesday nights, I’ll drop by their apartment for dinner and conversation.  During one meal, I asked about all the times they’ve gotten screwed over in Hollywood.  Lawyers voiding their contracts, producers breaking their promises, and executives rewriting their scripts.  Faced with this constant disappointment, I asked them if it’s all worth it.  “Unlike those lawyers, producers, and studio execs,” I said, “you guys are still driving a beat-up car, living in a rent-controlled apartment, and going a year or more without a paycheck.”  Before I could even continue, Logan interrupted me, and said something I’ll never forget.

 

“Look at my life,” he said.  “Look at my brother’s life. Look at our books, our work, and our friends.  This morning, I lifted weights in Venice Beach and then wrote for three hours in Santa Monica.  After lunch, I went for a walk in Palisades Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  And after that, I read for another three hours.  I’m the luckiest guy I know.”        

 

Sipping my drink and listening to Logan redefine what “making it” in life truly means, I thought to myself, “Well, you two guys are my friends, so that makes me damn lucky too.”


Fellowship

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