Writer and director Nicholas McCarthy watches his movie "The Pact,"… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Nicholas McCarthy found himself in the Santa Monica offices of Content Media, an independent movie company, sensing that his life had reached a crossroads.
His 11-minute thriller had just played at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He had hoped the premiere would launch — finally, after so many failed attempts — his dream of making it in Hollywood. But he came home with only one offer of a meeting, from Jamie Carmichael, president of Content's film division.
McCarthy, bookish in his black-rimmed glasses, was skeptical about his chances. In years of trying to sell scripts and concepts, he had been through plenty of meetings, and the end was always the same. No.
FULL COVERAGE: Chasing the dream
Carmichael, though, was to the point. "Maybe we can make this into a feature film," he said. "Do you have a full-length script?"
McCarthy didn't hesitate. "Sure," he said. "It's done. Just give me a few weeks to polish it."
In fact, he had only a hazy idea of how he would transform the 11 minutes of "The Pact" into something much more.
McCarthy had reason to lie: This might be his last chance. He was 40, with a wife and baby. Like countless dreamers, he'd existed on the outskirts of Hollywood, fending off debt and doubt, staying afloat with low-wage jobs, diligently writing screenplays and making short films, hoping to hold on long enough to catch a break.
Each day, he drove to a little cafe in Atwater Village and spent hours there, typing, thinking, scribbling out plots, surrounded by actors and filmmakers chasing the same elusive prize.
The odds were daunting. All he had to do was look around to be reminded of Hollywood's addicting allure.
At the cafe, a few had achieved success enough to make a good living. But most were grinding away like he was, lonely among the crowd.
He and his wife had talked about when he would give up.
He wouldn't. Not now.
Early love of movies
When McCarthy was 8, he sat next to his big sister at a theater in their New Hampshire hometown, watching "Jaws." It filled him with terror yet gut-busting laughter too. It jolted him with a force he'd never imagined.
"It was a roller-coaster ride," he said. "I left 'Jaws' completely energized. And completely obsessed. That was the start."
By junior high, he was drawn to edgy filmmakers like John Waters and David Lynch.
His father was a school principal, his mother a teacher, but he wasn't much for schoolwork.
He'd be watching a film with his parents, turn to his mother and analyze the way a director used light in a particular scene to heighten the emotional power. He was 12.
Not surprisingly, he eventually got a film degree from Purchase College of the State University of New York and after that moved to New York City. He paid rent by tending bar, and grew consumed with a single movie, one he'd started as an undergrad.
"It sucked me in, the drive to finish that thing," he said. He'd rent a clunky editing machine, lug it into his Queens apartment and spend weeks just splicing negatives.
McCarthy's film was a mystery about a group of friends dealing with death. When it was done, he rented a theater and invited a small group to view it. Yet as he watched, he realized he'd made a flop. He took the film home, tucked it inside a box, and never played it again.
That's why, in the summer of 2000, McCarthy moved to Los Angeles. New York had battered him. He was 29, with no job, no permanent place to live.
He slept on his sister's couch for a while; she had moved here to work as a business executive. But he wanted none of that life. He found a $500-a-month apartment on Sunset Boulevard and struggled to pay his bills.
There were years without health insurance, months without work. In 2001 he was hired as an office assistant at a company making a video called "Flesh + Steel: The Making of RoboCop." He got fired after six weeks.
His escape, as always, was the movies. When he wasn't watching them (sometimes 10 a week), he was talking about making them.
"I was an aspiring filmmaker," he said. "But I started to see how aspiring to be something was a way to not really try. If you did that and you failed, well, you didn't really fail. I needed to start making things, even if they weren't great, just making things."
He started with a group of other cinephiles. They called themselves Alpha 60, a nod to a malevolent computer system in the 1960s Jean-Luc Godard film "Alphaville." They would scribble ideas on scraps of paper, toss the scraps into a bowl, pull one out and get going — everyone pitching in, using borrowed equipment. They made dramas, oddball comedies and musicals. One short by McCarthy started in Spanish and finished in Korean.
Many of those films were shown at the Echo Park Film Center. One night, Mike Plante, a Sundance programmer, caught one of McCarthy's movies. "There was something special about his work and it was apparent right away," Plante said. "There was a style there."