Fast Times at American High

“Shouldn’t you be filming this audition?” The nervous actress-hopeful asked me with a look of pure confusion. “I mean, how will they know if I’m really good?”

“Uh, well, actually if you’re really good, then I’m just gonna mark it down on this little notepad here and, um, then we’ll know. And then we’ll let you know. Ok, should we start?”

In July of 2019, I went to report on and write a story about a new local film production company called American High, which is based in little old Liverpool, NY. The company’s mission is to create classic, R-rated, high-school based comedies reminiscent of the John Hughes-era films of the 80s. This is a story of how, within one hour, I turned from a news reporter to a talent scout in charge of an auditioning room.

Throughout all of our lives, both good and bad things will happen to us. If we spend too much time thinking about why they’re happening, the good ones will surely pass us by.

The anxiety was kicking in to extreme-o levels and I was ready to turn the Jeep around and head home.

‘Fuck it. No chance I’m talking to anyone of any importance here. And even if I do, I’ll blow it some way. For sure.’

So, I drove away from the high school-turned film production site known as Syracuse Studios and pulled into the parking lot of a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. For some reason my nerves love taking shits and then drinking coffee. It’s a vicious cycle.

But after I had relieved myself and slurped half of the iced coffee plus an espresso shot down, I knew I had to go back.

When I returned to the building, my parking spot was gone and the line from the entrance of the ‘school’ had poured out to the front sidewalk and around the block. There were a few hundred hopeful background extras here, maybe a couple thousand.

Here in Liverpool, NY, just north of Syracuse, local actor wannabes were working on their vocals and practicing lines from their favorite movies, ready to be thrust into the next Hollywood film from American High founder Jeremy Garelick and his team.

I wasn’t here as an actor, but as a journalist. Finally gathering myself and preparing to interview some of the locals waiting in line about what it meant for their city to become the ‘Hollywood of the East Coast,’ I crawled out of my Jeep and approached the masses, notebook in hand.

I made it to the head of the line and peered around to see who might want to talk to a reporter – actually, who was I kidding? They would all love to pour their hearts out to a news guy, if given the shot.

Suddenly a figure emerged from the school’s front doors and leapt down the steps, meandering around the line of audition attendees. The man wearing a red, white and blue hat that read ‘American High’ and sweating through his t-shirt was a man that I immediately recognized from my research into the blossoming new film production company.

At this moment, I knew I had my shot.

You see, I was here to cover the new company and write a fluffy story about how the influx of a film industry would affect the economy and the people of Syracuse and Liverpool. But, once I learned more about American High and its mission, its early successes, and the drive of its leaders such as Garelick, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

With absolutely no experience in film, I was still cultivating just how to make that idea a reality. So, at first, I stuck with the journalist thing. I approached Garelick and explained that I was a journalism grad student at Syracuse University and that I wanted to interview him once he had wrapped up the day’s auditions. I mentioned that with the looks of the growing crowd, he might be in for a long day, but he promised he would talk to me afterwards.

Not two minutes later, he had emerged again from the building, pointed at me and waved me over.

“Hey, man, we didn’t really expect this many people to show up to the casting call today. Would you mind helping us out a little? Just pass out some of these casting sheets and make sure everyone in line gets one?”

It was at this moment I had to make a decision: Would I continue to be a reporter covering a story, or was I about to provide free labor to this sweaty guy who also happened to be a smart and successful Hollywood movie writer and creative?

Well, this story wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I stayed on as a boring old reporter would it?

After making sure that the few hundred people in line all had gotten their casting sheets, I went back up to Garelick and asked him if I could help with anything else.

“You want to conduct some auditions?” He asked me.

“I mean, I have no experience and have no idea what I’d be looking for, but I love movies so I’m sure I could figure it out.”

“Perfect. We’ll set you up in a room. All you have to do is read a few lines with them, take their picture and if they’re really awesome, then make a note of it and let us know afterwards.”

And with that, I was set up in a makeshift nurse’s office set with a few lines from American High’s newest movie.

I’m truly a lucky individual and have been given so much in my life and had the opportunities to experience life in wild ways. I’ve jumped out of a plane, lived in the Rocky Mountains and survived the ‘riots’ that encompassed the University of Dayton’s historic Elite 8 run in 2014.

But never have I felt the rush of intense energy, happiness and excitement that I felt that day. I’ve always wanted to create, and, with my abilities, that’s mostly meant in the writing world. However, making movies or even writing movie scripts was never a thought that had honestly crossed my mind. Now, it’s often all I can think about.

The team at American High is now in the throes of their newest film. They’ve already created five feature films, not to mention a show on Netflix. They’re serious about their craft and although I haven’t seen a single scene from one of their movies (since they haven’t been released yet), I have a feeling that each film will be heartfelt and genuine… and hopefully a bit raunchy, too.

Heartfelt and genuine. That was the vibe I got that day from my few hours spent at an American High casting call. That’s the vibe I will continue projecting into the universe regardless of where my career takes me. And from my brief interactions with some of American High’s team, I think they’re going to keep that vibe as well.

50 Quick

In a flash, he grabbed me by my metal mask and pulled my head-filled helmet towards his beat red face. As he looked into my eyes, I started pondering the aggressive nature of this sport and how it makes those who are leading and not playing into even angrier specimens than it does to us who are actually on the field. I mentally prepared to receive the information that I would relay to my huddled teammates. My thoughts raced to my family up in the stands. Raced to the images of my brother, the linebacker and captain of his team, making a big tackle to win the game. Raced to my inability to do anything well. It’s amazing how long moments like these drag on when you take a second to think back to the situation.

I fully expected a play-call like 34 Iso or 28 Dash, which were both running plays. We were on the one yard line of a wet and mud-riddled grass field and there was no way our coach trusted the little guy playing third-string quarterback to sling it to me at wide receiver – and no way he trusted me to catch the football. But, after staring into my eyes for an uncomfortable amount of time, he whispered “50 Quick” through the metal shield and into my ear. Immediately, I turned away and started sprinting towards my squadron, who were anxiously awaiting my arrival just a yard from a touch down.

‘Thank God he called a run,’ I thought to myself as I jogged slow-motion-like across the field. ‘Hey, no he didn’t you twat,’ my conscience reminded me as I almost spoke the words of one of our common run plays. ‘We run the ball 85% of the time and I get maybe five plays per game and yet, this asshole calls a pass to me? To ME?’ I began arguing in my head, deciding if should tell them the real call, or just make something up.

When I came to, I noticed that there were ten boys wearing black and gold, mud-stained uniforms staring at me like a girl who had just walked into our all-boys high school. Just ten yards away, our opponent’s bright red jerseys contrasted with ours, though the mud splattering added a nice level of unison between teams in a sport in which the main goal is to kill each other.

“What’s the play you idiot?” Matt #2, the tiny quarterback asked me dearly.

“Uh, uhhh, he called 50 Quick,” I responded with great confidence.

Silence. Stunned faces. “Well, shit, alright, BREAK!!!”

The eleven of us lined up. It was late in the season and we were down a touchdown to the best team on our schedule late in the game. The weather was cold and rainy on the field at McQuaid Jesuit that day and the first and second string teams hadn’t played well, meaning that myself on third string was actually in a game on the line. And the coach picked a damn pass play on fourth down to me!?!

Once I left the huddle it was over pretty quick, quicker than everything else had gone by at least. Matt #2 called “HIKE” and our center snapped the ball. I took two steps into the end zone, then stutter-stepped, turned towards my quarterback and hopped back a yard to my right. The ball wiggled around in the air as it made its way towards my face. I reached my hands out, thinking to myself, ‘Holy shit, this might actually work.’ It didn’t.

The ball went straight through my fingertips, hit me directly in the face-mask and bounced dishearteningly to the grass as the red cornerback laid into me, doubling my sense of failure. After the whistle blew and the defender picked himself up off of me to celebrate with his teammates, I lay defeated in the mud. My teammates all walked towards our sideline as I lay there, knowing I had blown my only chance to score a touchdown. It was then that I made a promise to myself that if I was ever given an opportunity, I would give it everything my heart could produce.

It’s been ten years since I wrote that story about a middle school football game in which I played and ultimately realized that football wasn’t for me. It turned out that the sports avenue didn’t work out for me (at least not with me on the field). I didn’t give it all that I had and I didn’t keep the promise to myself about running with every opportunity that came my way. In fact, my next few years were spent in a hermit-like, depressive state in which I just wished that I was more athletic and in better shape, without wanting to work and make the changes for myself. After high school, I rediscovered my love for sport. Majoring in Sport Management at the University of Dayton reinvented my belief in the power of sport for good.

Now I will not lie, I learned plenty about the negative aspect of sports as well; the divisiveness, the outdated traditions, the unequal access to sport, the corruptness of major sport corporations. There’s plenty of bad in sport just as there is bad in any other topic in this world. It’s the human nature of sport that brings both its beauty and its ugliness. But one thing that cannot be negated is that sport absolutely brings people together. People of all backgrounds, racial, ethnic, economic and social are able to take solace in a simple game of pepper with a soccer ball, HORSE on the basketball court, or hitting in the batting cages, lacing up the skates, strapping on the skis, whatever your flavor, you name it.

Because of sports we have incredible stories, like Pat Tillman forgoing a lucrative career to fight for his country, the Williams sisters bolstering themselves from a rough neighborhood and becoming world-renowned athletes thanks in part to a dedicated father, or Jesse Owens looking Hitler’s evil directly in the face and standing tall. That’s not to mention the tons of global and local foundations and tournaments that bring people together annually in order to support great causes. There are also countless examples of sports events that connected people following tragedies. What comes to mind for me is the New York Yankees and the 2001 World Series. An organization that is generally despised among baseball fans responded to a rallying cry from the entire nation by winning three straight games at home to ignite a torn-apart city of New York in the aftermath of 9/11.

On the contrary, sports are also tied to infamous events throughout history. No doubt about it, the human nature of sports is what creates these earth-shattering moments in the same manner in which they create the lifting moments listed previously. For some examples we have Russia cheating in the Olympics, a plethora of current NCAA schools becoming exposed in the illegal recruiting atmosphere, and sick men who took advantage of embarrassingly lackadaisical athletic situations such as Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky. Human nature for some is to destroy things, so it only makes sense that some of this destruction is going to find its way into sports.

Today, in 2018, an exciting time for discussing sports and the ways in which it affects and is affected by various media entities and societal cultures throughout the world is upon us. As technology continues to be improved upon and implemented in sport and as an increasing number of athletes begin using their voice as a tool for social change, the media world has never had more stones to turn over, more mossy abysses to dissect. There is so much substance in the sports world and so many intersections with other entities and subjects.

The debates could rage on forever: Is the National Anthem and the American Flag an appropriate time and tool, respectively, to use as a form of protest? Should NCAA student-athletes who are partially responsible for bringing in huge amounts of revenue for their schools be allowed to receive income for their roles? Do you take Michael or Lebron with your first pick? It is issues such as these ones that define the importance of the sports world in a greater sense of our society. Oh, and also, sports just help make life a little more fun and exciting – a couple things that everyone could use.

It is issues such as these ones that deserve our attention; issues and stories that need to be explored and expounded upon for the purpose of finding the underlying human lessons and challenges that can bring people together. From here on out, I will be devoting my life to undertaking these expeditions that must be a key to finding life’s true purpose. Well, probably not, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

 

MR.G

Malcolm McCormick, A.K.A. Mac Miller: The Evolution of an Artist and a Journey Down the Rabbit Hole

He pulled out an acoustic guitar and began playing songs that everyone in the crowd knew – very famous songs, but they weren’t his, of course. Waterstreet Music Hall in downtown Rochester, NY was jam-packed with stoned white kids from the surrounding suburbs ready to see Mac Miller, the stereotypical, yet inaptly called “frat-pack” rapper, perform his newest album, Blue Slide Park. Without much of an ear for instrumental talent, I couldn’t tell if he was any good at guitar, but the fact that he was playing it seemed off par with how I had expected the evening to go – I mean, he’s a rapper, what’s he doing with a guitar? Seven years later and I now love and appreciate that I witnessed him pulling out his strings and belting out songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Two years ago on this very same day – the day of the dead and the disguised – I watched Mac Miller perform in the most perfect venue that nature has gifted us: Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. It was a strange night for me on a personal level and that concert solidified to me that Mac Miller (real name Malcolm McCormick) is a consummate creator and a major influencer in my life. To watch an artist who had tweaked and worked tirelessly at his craft go from performing at a location that holds no more than 1,000 patrons to a world-renowned music venue that holds ten times that amount is a truly magical experience. From that day in Rochester to the chilly evening on the front slopes of the Rocky Mountains, nothing had changed in the energy levels of McCormick’s performance; he was an artist and a professional through and through.

Today I watch nearly twenty artists in an unmatched concert in a celebratory dedication to that same Mac Miller that has captured my attention for the past seven-plus years. The music world can be a difficult place for some to find meaningful connections. I mean these are rich rockstars for fucksake, what do we have in common with any of them? Well, not much. But once in a fateful and goosebump-inducing indigo moon do we stumble upon a creative person – an artist who works a way into our soul in a funny sort of way. A sort of way that doesn’t quite feel right because it’s about a person who I will never meet or get to know, but through his music it’s almost as if I can see through into his soul. With his creations, his music, he has provided us a glimpse into a beautiful and troubled human being.

I just witnessed one of the greatest musical artists of my time, John Mayer, cover a recent Mac Miller song called “Small Worlds.” Before beginning the performance, Mayer recalls a story in which Miller discussed how nervous he was before performing the same song at LA hot spot Hotel Cafe. Mayer then goes on to say how nervous he is now before dedicating his rendition to the late Miller. Mayer’s performance ends with a touchingly introspective verse from Miller in which he asks, “Do you want it all if it’s all mediocre?” In the background, Mayer shreds on his guitar before belting into a rendition of his own song, “Gravity.”
John Mayer was at least the fifteenth performer and he certainly was not the last, which just goes to show the impact that Miller has left on the music world. All the while that the likes of Anderson .Paak, Chance the Rapper, Schoolboy Q, Thundercat, and Miguel serenaded the stage, a foundation in Miller’s name was receiving over $20,000 in donations. The Mac Miller Circles Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation of Miller’s hometown is dedicated to supporting youth arts and community-building programs in Mac Miller’s memory.

Of course, the reason for this collaborative concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles brings to mind harrowing elephant in the concert hall. McCormick battled his demons constantly over his spaced up, or trapped-out, or jazzy beats throughout the course of his career. Drug addiction was the consistent devil on his shoulder and, ultimately, led to his demise; a situation that was discussed a number of times on most of his albums and mixtapes. Over his 10 years in the limelight he went from the top charts of the US Independent Music scene to a near top of the charts artist at major label Warner Brothers; but his drug usage became an increasingly more persistent subject as his albums evolved.

At just fifteen years old, Malcolm Mccormick gave himself a moniker that was ultimately scrapped due to its super-duper cheesiness: EZ Mac. Under this name his first tape was released: But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy. After switching up his stage name to Mac Miller, the one he would stick with, the next two mixtapes came out in 2009, first Jukebox: Prelude to Class Clown and then The High Life.

In 2010, Miller rose to the underground, YouTube-driven hip-hop scene with his widely acclaimed and fame-inducing classic, K.I.D.S. (Kicking Incredibly Dope Shit). This free album featured Miller’s own version of an old school hip-hop Lord Finesse song, titled “Hip 2 Da Game.” The K.I.D.S. rapper entitled his own version “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza,” set to the sample of Lord Finesse’s hit. At the time of Miller’s first big successful release, this track would go a long way in proving to hip hop heads, or connoisseurs of the art form, that Mac Miller knew his history and respected the origins of the music scene he was entering. Just a couple of years and a settled lawsuit later, it turned out that Lord Finesse did not feel the same way about Miller’s use of his beat as many other hip hop fans and critics.

The year after the release of K.I.D.S., Miller had created yet another successful project in the form of Blue Slide Park, his first studio album, which was released independently through Pittsburgh based label, Rostrum Records. Nostalgically named after a childhood playground in his Pennsylvania hometown, the album would go on to be certified Gold by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) after becoming the first independent album to debut at #1 on the US Billboard 200 chart. The album explored some introspective themes, such as love and sexuality, as well as the life changes brought on by his newfound fame. In the limelight however, were the tape’s party and ‘hip-pop’ hits like “Donald Trump.”

The beautiful thing about Mac Miller as an artist and a consummate professional was his work ethic, which included an unwavering thirst for improving and experimenting with his sound. From The High Life to K.I.D.S to his next few mixtape which included I Love Life, Thank You and the psychedelic, Beatles-inspired, and inward-searching beats and lyrics of Macadelic. Prior to the release of Macadelic, much of Miller’s music had either an old school hip-hop vibe or painted scenes of high school parties and bongs being cleared in somebody’s parents’ bedroom. To those who listened closer to Miller’s music and found hidden tracks and unreleased music of his, it was clear that his introspective lyrics went back to the early days of his musical creation, but, Macadelic was the first time he had put his inner struggles into a full-length project.

From there came the signing with Warner Brothers – a deal worth $10 million that also included backing for his new label, REMember Records, featuring the initials of a departed childhood friend of Miller’s. Around this time, a Los Angeles mansion and a customized record studio inside of that mansion’s pool house became Miller’s new music paradise for the next couple of years. As he tore through California’s music scene set on creating music every day and working with a wide array of talented artists, he continued to gain respect as an artist, and notoriety as a partier.

And yet, the music never stopped. Although the music world may never know just how many creations were founded in the pool house studio where he often collaborated with the likes of L.A. based crews, Odd Future and Top Dawg Entertainment, in addition to a large repertoire of talented musicians. Over these years, Miller developed a dependence on codeine-based lean, but, also continued to pump out music, spending days and weeks at a time tweaking pitches and instrumentals and lyrics, until his final product sounded just right.

After signing his deal with a major label, Miller would go on to drop three studio albums before his untimely death in 2018. Before any of those came out, the eleventh and final free mixtape that would be released by the artist was shown to the world in 2014. Faces was one of the lengthiest projects that Mac Miller would release and was noted for being one of his best pieces of work, as the free album delved deeply into his issues with drug abuse.

In 2016, a new jazz-influenced sound was experimented with on The Divine Feminine, an album that was created and released in the midst of his relationship with pop-star Arianna Grande. Shortly after their breakup, it became evident that Miller was having tough times adjusting to his new life sans Grande. In May 2018, he crashed his Mercedes Benz G-Wagon into a pole, fled the scene, and was later arrested for DUI.

What would turn out to be his final album, Swimming, appeared to showcase that although he had come close to drowning in the past, his body now floated, and he was able to swim. Throughout the 13-song album, he speaks about taking care of oneself and made it seem through his lyrics that he was here for good. Not only was he here, but his music continued to evolve and improve, as he experimented with new sounds and different artists. Unfortunately, it turned out that Miller may not have been doing as well as his fans had hoped. On September 7th, 2018, he was found unresponsive in his home in Studio City, LA, where he was pronounced dead at the scene. Toxicology reports would later reveal that a lethal dose of cocaine, fentanyl, and alcohol were present in his blood stream. The deadly fentanyl had taken yet another life too soon. Miller’s newest album has been nominated for The Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. Upon the news of his death, the darker undertones of Swimming’s lyrics become much more harrowing and evident as he sings in the very first song, entitled Come Back to Earth, “I just need a way out, of my head. I’d do anything for a way out, of my head.”

There are countless songs in Mac Miller’s repertoire that touch on the possibility of an early death in his future. He constantly pondered the idea of going to sleep and not waking up again. He recounted the fear in his father’s voice on the phone that it could be their last conversation. It is clear that he recognized the problem with drugs that he had battled, considering the way in which he talked about it in interviews and his music. At the same time, he cherished his moments on this earth and made the effort to create and do as much as he possibly could while he was standing on it.

The last words here will be from the man this article is all about. At some point in his final weeks, he took out his phone and set it up to capture himself on the piano as he debuted his rendition of a new, unheard song. At the Mac Miller tribute concert, as all of the performers had wrapped up their songs and their words of recognition, the large video screen suddenly changed from black to Mac. His phone camera was on and his tattoo-covered arms began typing away at the black and white keys in front of him. The video is a perfect example of watching a person put his heart and soul into his craft, as you can feel the pain in his voice as he sings “I wonder do they see their own reflection in the mirror, and look away?”

“Once a day I rise.
Once a day I fall asleep with you.
Once a day I try, but I can’t find a single word.”