Ben Gouldthorpe: Stepping Away From the Edge With a Shock to the Heart

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From Pennsylvania and by way of Honolulu and Manhattan, Ben Gouldthorpe is a California-based screenwriter and independent filmmaker. He lives his wife, Meagan Mulligan, and her parents’ hound-mutt, Gus.

It’s been a while since we’ve caught up. How has it been in California and how’s writing going?

It’s been going well. I’ve been out here two years this March. I live at Meagan’s parents’ place, which is actually pretty cool. Not that we needed to, but it’s just beneficial to all of us. It affords me a lot of time to write and pursue projects that I want to do. I think I’m ready to take the plunge to L.A. next year. The one thing about up here is you’re not in the mix, so I feel I need to do that at some point.

What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?

That’s a good question. I’ve always been someone that says that I hate writing.

[Laughs] Is that the hardest part, that you hate it?

I find writing to be actually quite painful and I don’t like to get in there and do it. It’s hell on Earth to just get myself in a chair. Have you ever heard about guys who strap themselves down? I think they used to have a chair at the Performing Arts Library that belonged to some guy who’d literally strap himself down with belts to make himself write hours at a time. I feel I could benefit from that type of provision.

So when you sit down to write, what’s the part that’s so painful?

I go in really deep so it takes a while for the gears to get going, so that process is somewhat painful. It’s a lot to sign up for. Do you run at all?

I hate running but I do work out.

You know that feeling like once you get to the gym, it’s fine? Sometimes the hardest part is just going there or getting outside for the run. Once I’m in my flow, I don’t really think about it. It’s that part from getting up in morning to sitting in that chair and getting into that groove that can be really painful. Sometimes it can be doubt. There are a lot of distractions that can creep in there and you spend all your time batting them away.

Was this also the case in New York?

The thing that was good about New York was we had school, and there was a heavy amount of structure. I didn’t have the time to sit there and go, “I’m not really feeling it. It’s going to take me two hours to get into it.” You just had to go, go, go.

How did you get into writing in the first place? What keeps you going?

I remember being in 3rd grade and my teacher telling me I was a good writer. This was some sort of talent, some special skill. Sometimes when you hear that as a kid, you push it away for that reason. Maybe it’s because I was a shy kid, but it kind of felt strange. I didn’t want to be a writer.

Finally in high school, I had a really good creative writing teacher, and it also came about the same time as when I was really hitting my renegade stride. All of a sudden, writing could be this cool renegade thing. So I sort of embraced it a little bit there. Somewhere along my undergrad, I thought I could do a film degree and take screenwriting classes.

It was never this situation where I was a kid and wanted to be a writer. I was a kid [who] didn’t want to become a writer, and it kept coming around. So to answer your earlier question of why I keep coming back, I think it keeps coming back to me. Sometimes I’m like, “I really don’t enjoy this so much. It’s not like I’m making oodles of money doing it. So why am I doing it?” But the question that makes more sense is, “What would you rather be doing? Everything else would suck that much more.

What was your experience like going through the program?

It was insane. I think I’m the type of person where if I’m in on something, I’m all in on it. I go really hard at it. Combine that self-destructive work ethic with the workload that was thrown at us, it was really crazy. I don’t know how healthy it was at times, but I did enjoy it. I felt it made me grow as an artist. I did a shit ton of work that I wouldn’t have done outside of that. I know that it was good for my craft. One more stepping stone to wherever the hell we’re going.

What’s the hardest part about your self-care?

One of the hardest parts but the best lesson for me to learn was to get off my own back. There’s so much judgment that you can put on your stuff. It’s in the craft. We make something, we look at it, we rewrite it, we rearrange it. It’s never good enough when it first comes out, so nothing’s ever good enough. So that’s a part of what we do and that’s okay.

But on top of that, there’s this layer of, “Am I good enough compared to everything else that’s out there? Not just my peers but the stuff that’s on the screen?” There are all these opportunities to be very critical of what you’re doing, and that can be stifling. That can really kill you on a day-to-day basis. But what’s been nice the past few years is I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, “You work your ass off every day. You get yourself in that chair every day. You treat it like a nine-to-five. You’re doing everything you can. Stop hating yourself for that. If you can’t appreciate that, then you’re sandbagging yourself and everyone around you.”

That’s been a big part of my self-care—realizing if you’re working hard, that’s number one. Embrace that. Value the work you do, not the response that it gets.

What’s funny is I’ve always seen you as an incredibly Zen person.

I have my people I can bitch to, who either get it or they want to hear about it for five minutes. [Laughs] So I guess it depends on who you’re talking to. Certainly Meagan’s heard all of it and is probably sick of it, God bless her. When people came and talked in our classes at Tisch, and they were further along in their career, it was nice to hear their stories of insanity, doubt, fear and rejection. So I think we all go through it.

People have different ways of expressing their frustrations too.

Right. I am a pretty shy person, so whatever gets put out in the world is maybe a production to disguise what’s really going on internally.

What helped you through some of the more difficult emotional hurdles in your life?

I struggled a lot when I was 25 and finishing my undergrad. My last semester, I think I took 19 or 21 credits because I wanted to max it out. I was writing a full-length screenplay; I was in a band. I lived with my best friend in Hawaii and we were drinking three or four nights a week. It was insanity. So when I got out of that and graduated, there was this big empty space. I had crazy anxiety issues at the time. It was never diagnosed but I think I was having bouts of panic attacks.

[Pause] Huh. Looking back—because it got dark at times—I’m not really sure how I got through it, except having a commitment to yourself that you’ll find a better way. Even as a kid, I was always looking for a better thing than what was around me, and that would put me in different situations. Have the ability to look forward and see where you’re heading, and decide to steer away from that. Fortunately, I had very supportive friends. I also started working with kids. [If] you’re doing a nosedive, you have to right the ship at some point.

So out of curiosity, are you sober?

I drink. I think by many definitions, from 15 to 25, I would’ve been considered an alcoholic. I don’t think that’s too uncommon for young people, certainly not the dirty white boys from Pennsylvania that I grew up with. But there were times in there where I was like, “This is too heavy.” It’s a lot of shame. I could see all the danger lurking around the corner. I think my friends and I always flirted with those edges, not because we meant to, but it was just how we identified ourselves from our late-teens to mid-20’s.

But really the biggest way I got to self-care was having a heart condition diagnosed that guys in their 60’s would get. [Laughs] It’s taken care of, but what I had was atrial fibrillation. There’s a kind of AFib called Holiday Heart Syndrome and it happens from binge drinking and stuff. I was very much a binge-and-purge type of guy. I’d go on a bender and then I’d feel so upset and wouldn’t drink for a month. Then I’d do it again and go through all this stress, not get enough sleep, not take care of myself. And any of that could trigger a heart arrhythmia.

Meagan actually found it; she just noticed it randomly one day. So I went and got it checked out, and it scared the shit out of me. At that point, I quit everything and really tried to take care of myself in a different way. Not just being mindful of binge drinking, but also getting rest, eating well and not stressing myself out. Anyways, they put me out, they shocked me with defibrillators and my heart went back to normal rhythm. It really sped up the process of coming to a different level of maturity in terms of self-care.

Since then, I’ve been way more moderate. Moderation is something I’ve had to learn in order to get to somewhere that’s more sustainable, and certainly as an artist.

Do you think having a good support system has made a big difference for you?

I think it’s huge and some of it is something we can take for granted if we have it. I have more perspective now that I’m older. I look back and think, “Shit man, the edge is always a lot closer than you think.” So many times, I think what keeps one person from [going over the edge] is that support system.

What advice would you give Ben from 10 years ago?

[Laughs] That’s a great question. [Pause] Yeah, just take care of yourself. [And] have the trust that you’ll take care of yourself too. 10 years ago I was honestly a little bit scared. I didn’t know where things were heading, but I always had this instinct for self-preservation. I’d say [to him] to hold on to that because that’s what will get him through. And don’t be afraid to seek help.

[Pause] It’s always beneficial to try and step back. One of the things that helped me get through [grad school] was coming from those really heavy, manic times before, and realizing one of the ways out was to remove yourself from the situation and get some perspective on it. A lot of people say that I’m a patient person, but I’m really not. But [this] requires a lot of patience. There has to be a lot of trust in yourself and your decision-making, so it takes a while to see your life in a new light.

I think that is particularly difficult in your 20’s. You just feel like your life is ending or something, but you’ve got many decades to go.

When I was 18, I used to have this bullshit idea. I’m going to be 29, it’ll be the day before my 30th birthday, I’ll be riding on the west coast somewhere and all of a sudden I’m going to be hit by a car in this flaming accident, and it will be so cool. And then all of a sudden you’re 27 and you’re like, that’s bullshit! I only have three years left and I’m not nearly as cool as I want to be by 30.

It’s not over and you don’t want it to be over. Once you transition out of adolescence (I don’t even know if I’m out of adolescence yet), you start to feel the first tingles of wisdom, and that’s a really wonderful thing. Wisdom is cool.

At this point, what’s something you really want to improve as far as self-care?

I think confidence will always remain something [I have to work on]. That’s not anything new to the situation. I’d like it if I could silence more doubt out of what I do on a day-to-day basis. I’d like to maintain my exercise habits. Meagan and I do a lot of monitoring because we’re at a point where we’re thinking of having kids and buying a home. So we’re always mindful of communicating and understanding [how] the landscape of stress could change. What do we like about what we have now? How can that change in the future? So for me more than anything, it’s about maintaining the good habits and the ability for forward-thinking.

Sounds super easy Ben.

Really, really easy.

What would you do or say for a fellow writer who’s really struggling in their life right now?

First—and it depends on how heavy that dark place is—don’t be afraid to ask for help. And don’t ever be afraid to seek professional help. I saw a psychiatrist in my mid-20’s and there was something so liberating in that decision to take care of myself. Other than that, I’d encourage them to find comfort in the craft. Regardless of all the challenges and setbacks I’ve faced, I can still say, “If nothing else, I’m a lot smarter about filmmaking and writing scripts.” There’s something painful about what we do, but it’s also beautiful.

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