AS: After leaving active duty, a mutual friend put me in touch with fellow Marine Brian Iglesias, who had an idea for a documentary about the Chosin reservoir campaign from the Korean war. The battle is famous in Marine circles but is otherwise mostly unknown. 10,000 Marines were surrounded by 120,000 Chinese soldiers, 74-miles behind enemy lines in the mountains of North Korea in the dead of winter -- negative 25 degrees at mid-day. Men froze to death in their fighting holes at night. Despite the odds, the Marines fought their way out and with the help of the Army and Navy, saved the lives of 100,000 Korean refugees. It's a battle taught to every Marine in basic training, a lesson about whose shoulders you stand upon and what it means to be a Marine -- no matter the odds, you never quit, you never give up.
I met Brian in January of 2009. We both had deployed to Ramadi about six months apart and bonded over a few beers, telling stories. 30 days later, we were filming. We cashed out our retirement accounts, scraped together some cash and did everything ourselves: producing, directing, editing, all of our own PR. We filmed in 27 cities across 14 states over 8 months, another 5 months of editing on a pair of Macbooks, and we premiered at the GI Film Festival to a sold-out crowd. Local VFWs, American Legions, and Marine Corps League detachments let us use their spaces to film. Other vets or their friends or family gave us spare rooms or couches to crash on. We were sponsored by the Independent Film Project and could accept tax-deductible donations, which helped us get the film completed. We did the work, but it never would have happened without the military and New York independent film community getting behind us.
But we knew it had to be done. These guys are Marine legends, and they’re getting older. We had to capture that piece of our heritage before they were gone. Of course, I want to continue writing and producing content, but if I never get to make another movie for the rest of my life, I'm fine -- I got that one out the door.
After CHOSIN, I used my GI Bill to earn my MBA. Since then, I’ve worked in larger companies in a strategy or operations role that sits somewhere between the business, tech, and creative.
So how did you get started writing? What kind of work have you done in the past?
AS: When I was a kid, I wanted to draw and write comic books, so maybe junior high or high school I started writing. I studied fiction writing and film as an undergrad, but when I joined the Marines my mind focused in a completely different direction and there wasn’t any time for creative work.
I didn't start writing again in earnest until 2015. I got up early before work or found an empty conference room to sit in at lunch and wrote hundreds of pages of total crap for a long time.
How did you hear about the Bridge Award? What inspired you to enter?
AS: My wife Jackie and I have been attending the AITAF Veterans Day readings almost every year, and when they announced the award at the 2017 Broadway event, Jackie nudged me in the theater and said something like "You should submit something." But I still felt like everything I was writing was pretty bad at that point.
However, I had a kernel of an idea that I had been thinking about for a long time, and It felt like something that could work for the stage. So I bought a few dozen play scripts to read, and a great book called The Human Nature of Playwriting by Samson Raphaelson that I found out about on Reddit. It was an obscure title from 1949 that had actually just been released on Kindle that year.
The book is essentially Mr. Raphaelson's log of the playwriting class he taught, and his approach is more about spending time talking with his students individually and as a group about who they are, where they come from, their experiences, and what moves them. And once they dug into that, then the writing started.
It's such a simple approach, but it made sense and things clicked. I was still, even a decade after my last combat deployment, pretty emotionally guarded without even realizing it. And I think that was why my writing felt so bad at the time - lifeless. There was no emotional connection between me and the characters, or it would come and go. I had to open up, and I had to be open to listening to them. No joke, writing turned into therapy. I could work with my characters to put into words the things that felt impossible to discuss in real life.
I didn't think I was ready to write a play, nor had I ever written one. But my wife, Jackie, nudged me forward and said to give it a shot. So I did.
Writing a play for the first time is a big feat. Did you look to anything or anyone in particular for inspiration or guidance?
AS: I did lots of reading, researching, analyzing, getting comfortable with format.
For my first submission, I read plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, David Mamet, David Lindsay-Abaire, Martin McDonagh, John Patrick Shanley, Lorraine Hansberry, Eugene O'Neill, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Tennessee Williams, Lynn Nottage. And I read Vietnamese author Bao Ninh's semi-autobiographical The Sorrow of War and Mohsin Hamid's Exit West.
For 2019, I re-read some stuff from the previous year, along with Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard, Quiara Alegria Hudes' trilogy, Bertold Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, set during the 30-years war, and Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, a 19th-century play about a soldier chewed up by military life. Book-wise, I was reading a lot of Haruki Murakami short stories, and also Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered and Catherine Chung's Forgotten Country, both about Korean and American families and individuals impacted by the Korean War.
For 2020, I read David Henry Hwang, Arthur Miller, Eugene Ionesco, and Anna Deavere Smith. Jackie and I were on a travel sabbatical in 2019 and I read a ton of books: Toni Morrison, Ira Levin, Elmore Leaonard. I couldn't put down Women Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Laura Lippman crime novels, P.G. Wodehouse's comedy short stories (in which you can see the foundations of TV sitcom writing), Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Cormac Mcarthy, Raymond Carver, Octavia Butler, Min Jin Lee, and Harlan Ellison. Tayari Jones' An American Marriage was a big influence in the second draft of Local Gods - and Shawn Coyne's The Story Grid is, in my opinion, indispensable for any writer. Shawn has captured 30 years of knowledge as an editor and provided a set of tools for writers in any genre and any format to be their own editor. More than anything else, this book helped me with the rewrite on Local Gods.
That's a lot of reading! How long did your own writing process take?
AS: I TYPED the 2018 submission in about a month, after a month of research and two weeks of outlining (more on TYPING vs. WRITING in a minute).
For 2019, I spent about two painful months kicking around ideas before I landed on one and drafted an outline for Local Gods. I was running out of time and typed the draft I submitted in 12 days. I didn't share that version with anyone, because I hated it and I was actually angry when I finished it. I didn't know why then, but maybe it was because in my gut, I knew it wasn't really done yet and I was submitting unfinished work.
For the rewrite of Local Gods I submitted this year, I spent 4 weeks total analyzing the script, reworking the structure, re-outlining, and typing on a computer. It was a bit of a back-and-forth process.
I think "typing" is what most people think of when they say "writing." But for me, reading and learning and thinking and life experience and even the passing of time are all part of the writing process. So in a way, I would say it took me almost 40 years to write this play. I certainly couldn’t have written it even just three years ago.
What were the challenges and surprises along the way?
AS: The biggest challenge for me is always carving out time and headspace to be alone and think. Sometimes, that means getting up at 4:30 or 5 and doing the work, because once the day starts, all bets are off.
The biggest surprises are always from the characters. I love when I think I've got things figured out, and in the middle of a scene everything takes a turn I never saw coming and suddenly it feels like I'm taking dictation instead of writing. It's a bizarre experience, but I think it comes from packing my head full of ideas and research and inspiration, and typing sketches of characters or scenes--all the pre-work. Then it all sort of comes out.
The human brain is so weird.
Speaking of the characters - where did they come from? What was your inspiration for this story and these people?
AS: The characters are bits and pieces of people I’ve met over time and bits and pieces of myself (it’s impossible to avoid). As for the story, I might be going down a rabbit hole here, but... I think one of the broader ideas that pushed the writing forward was my discomfort with the concept of "heroes," and how damaging I think the idea is for both the idolizers and the idolized. To put someone on a pedestal at any point as opposed to having a shared dialogue just isn't healthy for anyone involved.
I thought a lot about the fact that war and serving in the military isn't really that special when it comes to trauma and hardship; people die, sometimes tragically and violently, whether or not they wear a uniform. I have a lot of friends and family members that dealt with a lot of difficult things over the past few decades - everyone suffers at one point or another. And making someone a “hero” for getting through that trauma pushes them further away from the group as something different from everyone else. And maybe they are. But the truth is, in those circumstances, the “hero” probably needs the group more than they ever did. They need to connect through the things that we all have in common.
Overall, I tried my best to empathize with every character and expose them at their best and worst. With few exceptions, nobody in real life is a hero or a villain - most people are just trying to get through the really difficult and complicated experience of life on earth as best they can. People do good things and bad things. Everyone messes up, sometimes in seemingly unforgivable ways. But as long as someone's still breathing and in the fight, there's opportunity for connection and redemption.
What was it like to find out that you won?
AS: I was working from home in Queens. Being in quarantine, celebration options were limited, but Jackie and I celebrated with some wine and a nice dinner. And then I got up early the next day to write and went back to work at my job.
You recently had a Zoom reading of the script with AITAF. What was that like? What did you learn?
AS: The reading was unbelievable. I've never heard anything I've written read out loud by actors, and I was blown away by how much the cast brought to the script. They pushed the emotional range of every scene beyond what I had imagined - I couldn't do anything but be completely drawn in by their performances. The biggest take away was the clear understanding that I can only do so much sitting at a keyboard alone. I need collaborators to help develop the work and have it made into a real thing.
What other projects - writing or otherwise - are you working on? What are you excited about in the near or distant future?
AS: I just finished a feature script that is a very over-the-top supernatural crime-thriller, maybe the closest comparison would be Zero Dark Thirty-meets-Rosemary's Baby. Very different from Local Gods, but a blast to write. And I'm putting the finishing touches on a TV pilot inspired by my first play, The Borough. I'd say it feels kind of like Goodfellas-meets-Master of None. On a non-writing front, Brian Iglesias and I will be re-releasing CHOSIN on Amazon Prime, soon. It hasn't been available for a while and we want to make sure it's available for the 70th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Mostly, I'm really excited to just keep writing and learning.
Any advice for members of the military community who might be considering submitting to the Bridge Award?
AS: Do it! If you are even considering it, just do it. It's more an internal journey than anything else. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and you will be surprised by how much you get back in return for doing the work and going through the process.
Any final thoughts?
AS: Just a big thank you to AITAF for launching this award program, and for creating opportunities year-round for real civilian-military dialogue.