Goodbye, Tim VandeSteeg

Irony, I guess. A half-written blog sits in my Draft folder right now; I was going to return to blogging this week with a message about how happy I am to be working with Sergio Valenzuela of Silver Phoenix Productions on a film, The Hero At The End Of The Day. Instead, I'm posting some of my memories of the man who brought Sergio and I together, Tim VandeSteeg. 

Tim passed away this week. "Unexpectedly" would be ridiculous understatement. Both Sergio and I spoke with him within the past week, and beyond a sprained ankle, nothing seemed to be amiss. As usual, Tim was spending his time between two of his biggest passions: upcoming film projects, and hanging out with his godson. At 46, Tim was healthy, full of energy, and excited about life. 

A few people have guessed that something went wrong with his heart, but it's almost unthinkable -- Tim was nothing BUT heart. Tim chose a career in a tough industry, with no guarantees, and he refused to even consider giving up. No matter the challenges, frustrations, or setbacks, Tim followed his passion with determination matched only by his on-screen idol, Rocky Balboa.*

Summer, 2001: I was on a guys' trip out in Lubbock, Texas, and got a call. "Hi, my name's Tim, and I'm a filmmaker. I loved the short script you posted on American Zoetrope; would you be interested in writing a feature about..." Tim's enthusiasm and confidence weren't just contagious; the man could start an epidemic of optimism. 

Tim  did all he could to help his friends and collaborators find success. He celebrated everything with you, and was genuinely happy for you. I remember telling him that I'd just landed a writing gig with another producer and hearing, "OhMyGodDudeThatsSoAwesome." Just like that. One word, no breath, but 100 decibels of heartfelt happiness on my behalf. 


Writing with Tim was fun. Sometimes frustrating**, but always fun. Tim didn't like to write with words -- he described feelings, made references to other films, and described the visual aspects of scenes he envisioned. I'd throw out some existing movie scenes to get us on the same page. "You mean like the pursuit in Butch Cassidy? Or maybe the creature in It Follows?" You could tell when that same page was found because Tim's voice would almost literally BOOM. "Yes! That's what I want!"

March, 2009: I was on a work trip in Seattle the night My Run was released to theaters. A bunch of my co-workers went with me to the Bella Bottega theater, and I still remember how great it felt to see my name in the credits on the big screen for the first time. There should be a note attached to that memory: "This moment brought to you by Tim VandeSteeg."

Tim worked hard, and the breadth of his knowledge was amazing. I visited while he was shooting Fall Into Me, and it was the first time I'd seen any part of film production beyond my own screenwriting. Tim showed me his shooting plan, walked me through the different teams and departments, gave me an overview of planning for an outdoor scene, talked about municipal code and permits, putting together a budget -- everything. He had great vision for his projects, but his talent certainly didn't stop at the envisioning stage. He took his ideas from vision to completion, and had fun doing it.


Once Tim was standing in line at Starbuck's while we were on the phone, trying to fine-tune a logline. He asked me to wait a second, and I heard him repeat the logline I'd just provided to someone else. He came back on the phone and said, "She loved it, let's go with that." I asked who he was with; was there some other movie producer, writer, someone with him? Nope. It was a random woman in line behind him. He just asked her if she thought she'd like to see a movie with that particular summary. Confidence, friendliness, personality -- Tim had all of the above.

December, 2017: Tim left me messages*** saying "Call me, fantastic news!" He and I had been working hard on converting Epitaph to a TV series proposal. Typical of Tim, he'd augmented my writing with an awesome slideshow, covering both the story and the highlights of the potential business side. He'd also made some great contacts for potential production partners. (You could say that Tim was a master of networking. I'd say Tim was friends with everyone.) 

I called him back, getting excited myself, thinking that perhaps he's landed the quintessential big break. Sure enough, Tim had just heard back from the producer: "he's getting ready to read it!"

Wait. That's the big news? The producer is getting ready to read our proposal?


And it was -- because Tim's enthusiasm, delight, and optimism were amazingly motivational. I poked fun at him a little for being so over the top about a pretty minor development, but in the following week, I wrote more than I had in the past six months.

That was Tim. He had his dream, and he didn't allow anything or anyone to stop him pursuing it, but he was more than happy to bring you along. He was a good guy, and I miss him already. 

* Tim and I never resolved our argument about which is the best sports movie ever made, Rocky or The Natural. We agreed to disagree by him putting The Natural as #2 and me doing the same for Rocky. 

** We worked together for a long, long time on a western/horror screenplay, Epitaph. After seven complete drafts, Tim had a suggestion: what if we took out one of the four major characters? My tirade ensued, but typical of Tim, he kept a good humor about it, closing off the conversation with something like, "Okay, maybe that wasn't such a great idea."

*** Tim's enthusiasm pushed technology to its limits. When he was really psyched up about a positive development, he'd call, leave a voice mail, send a text message, send an email, leave a message on FaceBook, and send a message via FaceBook Messenger. I fully expected that some day I'd call him back and realize he was already standing on my front porch.

Don't Duplicate Your Databases. Or Oscar Envelopes.

Not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  If you watched the Oscars last night (or if you have a pulse and either an Internet connection or TV this morning) you've probably already seen the finale -- Warrant Beatty announced that La La Land had won* Best Picture, the producers gave their acceptance speech, then the audience was told that a mistake had been made -- the Best Picture actually went to Moonlight

Apparently PricewaterhouseCoopers has a person waiting on each side of the stage, and each of these people holds an identical set of envelopes for the announcements.  (Their names are all ove the Internet, if you're that interested in personally vilifying them.)  When a presenter approaches, the person on that side hands the presenter an envelope.  See where this is going?

No Oscar for you!

No Oscar for you!

After the Best Actress award was presented, one of the PwC folks was left with the unused envelope and accidentally handed it to Warren Beatty as he and Faye Dunaway approached to announce the Best Picture.  Beatty was confused by this, clearly.  I think he was trying to ask Ms. Dunaway about it; she saw La La Land next to Emma Stone's name and announced the film as Best Picture. 

Anyone with PMP certification could tell you this is a process just waiting for an error.  In fact, any perceptive 14 year old could tell you that.  Or a BI person -- this is why we get so pissy with people who want their own replication of a database "so I can do my own reporting."

We have to have two envelopes; we don't know from which side the presenters will approach.  How can you NOT know this?  It's one of the most choreographed events outside of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.  The seat numbers aren't assigned in that auditorium?  Even Cinemark assigns seats now when you want to see Resident Evil: This Series Just Won't Die.

It's never been a problem before.  So your success rate has been excellent in the past.  Good for the past!  Weigh the acceptable failure rate -- clearly, failing once for the Best Picture presentation isn't considered acceptable.  Likewise, an airline can make 4,999 safe landings and nobody says about a plane crash, "But it was only .02%!"**

We suppose you have a better solution?  Well, sure.  To start with, only print one set of data.  I mean, envelopes.  That'll reduce the chances of your end users giving conflicting information.  Second, plan ahead.  I know, strategic planning is so 1980's -- it's a lot easier to just hope for the best.  Third, if you really can't predict the direction the presenter will approach from, just have one envelope, and have Vanna White deliver it to the presenter after he/she has reached the microphone.  If anyone can make a superfluous activity seem vital and elegant, it's Vanna. 

At the very least, invest in some operations management.

* Yes, I originally had "one" instead of "won" here.  Dragon Naturally Speaking is great, but everyone wonce in a while it chooses the wrong homonym and I miss it.  Thanks Eileen!

** It's probably not as extreme a comparison as you think.  People today seem to take it as personal betrayal that George R. R. Martin is so far behind on the next Game of Thrones novel, or that Burger King changed their menu.  I'm waiting for the protest marches to start.  Shouldn't be long; the conspiracy theorists are already hard at work.