To Live and Die in L.A.
Or Why I Left Hollywood: The Surprising Truth Every Filmmaker Should Know!
In the early days of 2017, against the cold winter wind that on occasion would blow through the naked trees and sweep down over the Hudson River, my wife and I made an offer on a house that was decidedly not in Los Angeles. It was instead more than 3000 miles away, on the other side of the country, in a small town in an area known as the Hudson Valley, about an hour and a half from New York City. An A-frame lodge style home, set back and hidden from the road, on four acres of woods, it was a complete and total change from the two-bedroom condo we currently occupied. Our offer was accepted and my wife and I flew back to Los Angeles to start packing and preparing our exit from the the place we had called home for the last 10 years.
And I’d like to think it's one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
Reevaluating the Hollywood Dream
A lot of people find it strange though (especially where we live now — “Wait, you moved from California to here?!” I tell them I can’t wait for winter and they look at me suspiciously). I mean, most people are trying to move to L.A. and here I am leaving it. The truth is, I never thought I would live the rest of my life in Los Angeles. I always imagined that at some point, I would feel comfortable in whatever success I had to not have to live there. For a time though, as I tried to get my career started, it made sense and it was the right place to be. And I did really love it here. I loved the people I met, the experiences I had, and being right in the middle of the action.
Towards the end, however, I had grown tired of a lot of it. I was tired of the constantly terrible traffic that meant you spent a good portion of your day in a car; tired of the constant sunshine, as a kid who grew up in Seattle, I was desperately aching for seasons, for a sense of the passing of time; I was tired of being in coffee shops and seeing every single person writing a script, prepping a shoot, going on and on about “movies, and film theory, and blah blah blah”; I was tired of being constantly surrounded by other people’s success and finding myself struggle to create my own definition of success; I was tired of living in a concrete jungle, tired of worrying about where we would live in order to get our son into the best public school we could, I was just tired. And I didn’t feel happy.
A lot of the reasons for my unhappiness were covered in my previous post about defining success and I also felt that where I lived was a contributing factor. There was something missing — I found myself wanting to get out of L.A., travel, take a week in the mountains to write, go live in France or Italy for a month or two. I just really need a change — my soul was calling for one. But leaving L.A. meant feeling confident in my connections in L.A.
A New Perspective
In mid-2016 I finally achieved my representation trifecta. Though I had a manager and lawyer for a number of years, I never had agency representation, and that changed when I was signed to CAA. And I started to feel much more comfortable about future possibilities. I started to worry less about making connections and networking and more about the kind of projects I was working on. Getting the meetings was no longer the problem, the problem was creating the work that made those meetings worth it. And I thought L.A. was starting to get in the way of creating that work.
On a whim, my wife looked at the cost of property in upstate New York. She had a friend who had purchased property and was building a house and we were amazed at how much land you could get for less than what we bought our two-bedroom condo for. We had always wanted land and it actually felt possible to get some now. I felt a change rising inside of me.
I had grown up in an area outside of Seattle called Redmond (known as ‘The Plateau’ to those who lived there). It was sufficiently suburban and full of kids, yet right on the edge of wilderness. We could ride our bikes through the neighborhood, 10 kids in a group, and spend hours wandering through the woods next to our neighborhood. I felt that to be a magical way to grow up, a Calvin and Hobbes type of existence, and one that I felt was not possible in L.A. Certainly not in North Hollywood. The idea of a life change, not just a location change, began to take hold.
One of the things about living in Hollywood is that you’re constantly swept up in everything around you. It’s impossible to ignore the success of others when it's constantly in your face. You see it on billboards, you know it as you drive by studios where you don’t have an office, you hear it as you’re sitting in a movie theater listening to others talk about what they’re doing. It’s fucking hard to be surrounded by all that and not feel like its a zero sum game. “Why am I not getting that?” “Why didn’t I sell a project?” “Why is he writing that script and not me?” Or whatever. You know what I’m talking about.
I’ve spent the last two years trying to find a way to get away from it. Stoicism has helped, considerably, and I highly recommend you check it out. An easy place to start is with either “The Obstacle is the Way” or “Ego Is The Enemy” both by Ryan Holiday. Or you can sign up for The Daily Stoic newsletter here. (I’m in no way affiliated with the site or Ryan. Just a fan.) The point is, rightly or wrongly, I found myself tying my personal happiness directly to my professional success. And because I hadn’t really defined what ‘professional success’ meant to me, I never felt like I had it and thus felt unhappy about my career and my own personal status.
This isn’t about me “quitting Hollywood” or not being able to hack it in Los Angeles. This was about me deciding that maybe Los Angeles wasn’t the best place for me to be incubating ideas and projects anymore. Maybe what I needed was a place I could hear my intuition, my gut, where I could have the time and space to find and develop projects that were more personal. Los Angeles always had me feeling like I was rushed, like I was falling behind (I still feel like that from time to time). And being constantly surrounded by people making things and doing things made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, and thus, rushed into projects before they were ready, or took jobs because I needed the money, or because I had made things before, felt like I could make them better than maybe they were in the beginning. I was never one to spent three years developing a script and yet maybe that’s exactly what I needed to be doing.
I’m not saying it's impossible to do all this while in Los Angeles but I know that it was difficult for me. Maybe you’re not even aware of the affect Hollywood is having on you (be it positive or negative). Some people thrive on that…I found myself wanting something else, a life that didn’t revolve around movies 24/7. When I was younger, that was all I wanted. I wanted to live and breathe movies. But as I got older, had a child, I found myself searching for opportunities to escape it — which in turn, fed back into what I was working on in a positive way.
The Constant Lure of Hollywood
Often, when I talk to young filmmakers who aren’t in Los Angeles, they’re always telling me how they can’t wait to move there — that there’s nothing for them where they live. I tell them to reconsider that. Hollywood is full of wannbe Tarantinos who only seem to be able to write movies that are based and reference other movies. Its incestuous. And while Hollywood will make use of that, they’re not really looking for it. They’re looking for unique voices and they’re looking outside Hollywood to find them. Consider one of the hottest directors at the moment — Denis Villeneuve. I don’t know if he lives in Los Angeles now (I don’t think so) but he didn’t start there and if he did move its only been recently. He grew up in Montreal and spent most of his early career there, becoming a big fish in a little pond. His early films were filled with stories about people and events specific to Montreal/Canada. Hollywood took notice of his unique voice and now he’s directing some of the biggest movies at the moment. He did all of this while not living in L.A.
I can’t tell you how many people have told me they wished they could do what I did. From friends, to colleagues, to execs they all seem to harbor the same dream or feel the same things are missing. So, there’s obviously something in the air. But they can’t just move, their jobs are in Los Angeles.
I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to be an artist it’s worth stepping away from the insular and closed off world of Hollywood and into one that is unfamiliar and different. This is such a big, diverse world and we deserve diverse stories. But those have to be sought out and discovered in strange and far off lands. They have to come from people who have no traded their voice and individuality for commercialism and reward.
The Zoom Revolution and the Waning Appeal of In-Person Meetings
Ah, Los Angeles. Every trip back there, I eagerly try to set up those face-to-face meetings. There’s something about sitting down with someone, seeing their expressions, feeling the ambiance of the room. After the pandemic, I expected we’d be yearning for those classic L.A. meet-ups, yet that seems more nostalgic than reality.
Last month, while in L.A., I had this image in my mind: coffee shops, casual lunches, and maybe a few earnest business handshakes. But instead, more often than not, my inbox chimed with a Zoom invitation. I get it, it’s convenient, but it still feels… remote, pun intended.
I caught up with Bryan Woods for lunch. If you’re drawing a blank, he’s the powerhouse behind A Quiet Place and 65 with his writing/directing partner, Scott Beck. So I thought, if there’s one guy who’s having those in-person script discussions over a steak, it’s him. But here’s the twist: Bryan’s knee-deep in the Zoom world too. And he’s not a fan.
So, it got me thinking. If even Hollywood’s big hitters are video calling from their home offices or back patios, why remain tethered to the City of Angels? Or why even got there in the first place. The allure of L.A. used to be so closely tied to the chance of that ‘golden meeting.’ But now, with meetings going digital, perhaps location matters less.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a charm in being in the same room, in sharing that space, and it's something I prefer. It's hard to have those rambling, thoughtful conversations over an “unstable internet connection.” But maybe this is an evolution, another step in reshaping how the industry operates and at the end of the day, it means you don’t have to be in Los Angeles. And while part of me misses the old L.A. hustle, there’s also a part that’s okay with logging in from my cozy corner in the Hudson Valley. Just, you know, with a better camera setup.
The Unexpected Upsides of Departing Tinseltown
Whenever I chat with filmmakers and tell them I don’t live in Los Angeles, there’s an inevitable question, “Has moving away from L.A. impacted your career negatively?” I always take a deep breath before answering because, well, I’m not sure what they expect to hear. But the candid truth? It’s been nothing but a boon for me.
Since pulling away from the palm-tree-lined streets, I’ve been on a creative roll. Not one, but three directing ventures have come to fruition: a digital series (Release) and two feature films (Infamous and Mending the Line), all of which had zero scenes set against the iconic L.A. backdrop. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. My docket is buzzing with more projects in the pipeline.
Now, if we’re talking about impactful events, the pandemic and the WGA/SAG strike immediately spring to mind. They’ve been more influential in reshaping the movie landscape than any geographical move on my part. In an ironic twist, the pandemic prompted a great exodus of industry folks from L.A. Suddenly, I found myself amidst a growing tribe of professionals seeking greener pastures beyond the city’s sprawl.
In essence, leaving Los Angeles hasn’t set me back. If anything, it’s thrust me into the company of innovative thinkers, a fraternity of creators charting their own, unconventional courses. And that, my friends, is the kind of sequel I’m here for.
To Stay or Not to Stay
If you want to be an editor or cinematographer, there’s a good argument that you should probably be in Los Angeles, because 1) there’s more work there and 2) that’s where most of the hiring takes place. If you want to write for television you pretty much have to be there. If you want to work as an agent, manager or executive, then yep, LA is probably where you need to be. But if you want to write and/or direct feature films I think you’re far better off living some place else, gaining life experiences and the personal experiences that you can write about, and finding a way to carve your own path in a unique place, rather than becoming one of thousands in Hollywood. Let Hollywood come to you.
And if you’re already in Los Angeles — maybe you’re feeling the same way I did. If you feel secure about your connections and your career, maybe consider leaving it and living somewhere else.
You just might find a story worth telling.
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Joshua Caldwell is a director, writer, producer, and MTV Movie Award Winner. His debut feature film LAYOVER was made for $6000 and had its World Premiere to sold out crowds at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award. He wrote and directed INFAMOUS, starring Bella Thorne which was the #1 New Movie in America the week of its debut. Indiewire called the film “nihilistic and uncomfortably believable” with “an appropriately nutso performance from Bella Thorne.” Screenrant wrote “A thrilling crime drama and compelling character study” while Variety called it “perversely fascinating” and “infused with kinetic verve.” His latest film MENDING THE LINE, stars Brian Cox, Sinqua Walls, Perry Mattfeld and Wes Studi. The story of a marine injured in Afghanistan who meets a Vietnam Vet who teaches him how to fly fish as a way of dealing with his trauma, the film was released in theaters in June 2023 and is 79% FRESH on RottenTomatoes.com.
For more visit Joshua-Caldwell.com!