How to Survive a Family During a Pandemic

It’s not just this virus. Literally anything that happens to us, good or bad, either draws us more closely together or rips us apart. A pandemic like COVID-19, of course, draws us together no matter what. We quarantine. We lockdown. We huddle together in a bubble held together by, in some cases, nothing more than proximity. The question isn’t just whether we can survive the virus, it’s whether or not we can survive each other.

Are we a family of ships passing in the night, or is there a love still there that can be rekindled by a whole lot of togetherness?

I want to make two things clear up front before I dive into this:

  1. I’m the writer in the family or you’d be hearing from my wife, Erin, right now. The following is all down to her. Her ideas, her initiatives, her glue holding us all together.
  2. All of this requires effort. I know it’s easier to be lazy during a pandemic, but that way lies madness. Family is work. Family during a pandemic is a little more work. No way around it.

Okay. Here it is. The following is what the Heasley family has been doing the past four months to survive each other during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Your mileage may vary.

CELEBRATIONS

When so many things are going wrong, you’ve got to elevate the good. We will take any excuse to celebrate. And I mean, ANY. Yes, we’ve done things like in-home celebrations of birthdays and our eldest daughter graduating from high school and an in-home prom with the help of John Krasinski, but we’ve also come up with a completely made up reason…

The pandemic itself. Starting on Day 50 and every ten days since, we’ve put together themed celebrations just to say to ourselves, “Hey, we’re doing this, we’re staying in as much as we can, we’re masking up, we’re avoiding anyone who doesn’t live in this home, and we’re doing our part. Let’s celebrate that.”

Here’s what that’s looked like so far:

Day 50 – Family Sock Hop

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Day 60 – Mocktail Night

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Day 70 – Family Fun Run

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Day 80 – 80’s Movie Festival

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Day 90 – Water Day (New trampoline with sprinklers and water balloons/guns)

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Day 100 – Service to Others and Ice Cream Sunday

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Day 110 – Blanket Fort Day

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Day 120 – Spa Day

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Day 130 – Christmas in July

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Day 140 – International Night (Trivia and food from around the world)

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Consequently, marking time during the pandemic has gone from a depressing thing to an exciting thing. Yeah, it’s a lot of work for us (again, mostly Erin), but for our kids they’re going to look back on this time as difficult, yes, but also special. Exciting, even.

I mean, everybody got presents during Christmas in July. Our kids should be LOVING this. And they do.

ONE HOUR CLEANINGS

Every day. Every day except Sunday we get together as a family and clean for one hour, at 11 AM. Four out of five of the people who live here are able to participate, which means that our house is getting four hours of cleaning every day.

Within two weeks we had cleaned literally everything in the house. Spring cleaning the likes of which we have NEVER done before. Now, it’s just upkeep. Really easy stuff. We even folded in a repaint of the bathroom over the course of a week because there’s just less to do now.

Look, my family HATES cleaning. I don’t think we even started cleaning the house in a significant way until around Day 100 because we hate it so much, but it has made a HUGE difference. We are in this space ALL THE TIME, and having it clean just FEELS good. Plus, no one gets mad at anyone else because their stuff is somewhere it shouldn’t be because know that 11 AM the next day it’ll get picked up.

Or fed to the dogs. I don’t make the rules.

ROUTINE

Speaking of doing things every day, a routine is essential for a time like this. The days can easily get away from you, you can lose track of time, and you can be so unproductive if you don’t have your routines in place. Besides the cleaning, we also get up by 9:30 AM each morning (why wake up any earlier when you don’t go anywhere?), eat dinner together as a family every night around 6 PM, read scriptures and pray together as a family at 7:45 PM, and the parents take over the TV at 8 PM. Because we paid for it.

Simple stuff, but it keeps our clocks in order and gives structure.

BREAK THE ROUTINE

If the routine is wearing you down, it’s not doing its job. Take breaks! Just the other day, Erin woke up and said “I can’t clean today.” So, we didn’t! And we didn’t the next day, either. Or the day after that (mostly because that day was Sunday). But today? We were right back on it. Breaking the routine is just as important as keeping the routine. So, break it.

But then get right back on it.

ICE CREAM

Sometimes, you need ice cream. That’s it. That’s the tip.

(But don’t overdo it.)

GIVE EACH OTHER SPACE

Don’t be in each other’s business all the time. We got both Animal Crossing and Minecraft for our Nintendo Switch for our youngest. She hasn’t seen a friend since March and it’s her major form of entertainment and socialization, sadly, but more importantly it keeps her in a private space at a time of her life when she can kind of talk your ear off.

Best way to not get on each other’s nerves? Don’t be in the same space all the time. Respect the need for privacy.

DON’T OBSESS OVER THE NEWS

The job of the news is to inform, and the most essential information is always going to be bad news. There’s a lot of bad news right now, and a lot of disagreement about what is and is not true about that bad news. You can drive yourself mad trying to sort through it all, and everyone I know who lives on a steady diet of news (TV, in particular) is pretty sure the world is going to end, like, tomorrow.

That’s not a super healthy place to be, but if that’s the place you insist on being, don’t take your family there with you. Not everyone wants to go. We talk about current events in our house, but we don’t dwell and we are conscious of who is in the room and what age they are. There’s only so much we can control, but controlling our home environment? Well, that’s all up to us.

FIND GOD

This isn’t going to resonate with everyone who reads this, but find God in all this. He is, I assure you, there. I’m not super old, but I’m not super young either. I’ve been through some stuff, and I’m telling you that even in the darkest of times–ESPECIALLY then–God is there. He cares about you. He loves you. (Yes, he’s allowing all this to happen, but that’s for a purpose that would take a whole other blog to cover (or, y’know, a movie I wrote). )

He’s in the kindness of strangers. He’s in the smile of those you pass by. He’s in the hug of a child and a meal shared. He’s on the other end of the line when you pray. I have felt tremendous comfort through all of this, and, I would argue, my wife has been tremendously inspired through all this by the Spirit of God. We are constantly, constantly looking to Him, and because of that we know peace.

And because we know peace, the Heasley family is more than just surviving each other during this forced togetherness. I daresay we love each all the more.

New Blog Posts in Other Places!

Hey everybody, just letting you know I’m still out here and blogging–but it’s showing up in other places! Here’s some links to two recent blogs I did about the work I’m doing creating my own films with Tremendum Pictures:

TREMENDUM PICTURES MAKES MOVIES. PLURAL.

I recently read that 80% of all short film makers never make another film. That’s a pretty terrible statistic. There’s probably lots of reasons for people not taking a second dip into the filmmaking pool, but the biggest has to be that making a film is really, really, REALLY difficult. Earlier this year, I finally finished my first short film as a writer/director, The Shift, after an exhausting year and a half of work. There were times I wondered if I still would have made the film if I knew at the beginning how much blood, sweat, late nights, feelings of self doubt, favors, mistakes, computer crashes, and, yes, tears it would eventually require. That 80% statistic resonated with me in a big way… READ MORE.

And…

MAKING MOVIES IS AN ACT OF FAITH: THE 205th

I wiped the wet brow under my sweat-soaked cap and shut my eyes tight against the setting sun. The grips barked calls to one another across the city park parking lot while my D.P. presented me with the very real possibility that we might not get the shot. This was, after all, the most complicated scene in the entire film–a tense “oner” that would see a smoking gun, blood splatter, and a character fall to the ground. We needed, probably, at least an hour of rehearsals to get the timing and the performances right.

We had five minutes. Three after arguing for two over whether or not it was even worth trying… READ MORE.

What It’s Like to Make Your First Short Film

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The biggest, most important scene in the script took place in a diner and I had found the perfect location. It was quirkily retro and dressed with colors you don’t see in modern buildings anymore. This–this diner–popped. In a big way. Every angle was a good one, enough so I knew my DP would be in heaven every minute we shot there.  And the space–oh man, was it spacious! Not a small thing given how many crew and actors and extras would be assembled for the marathon twelve hour shoot.

I approached the management at the diner four weeks out. They were enthusiastic about us taking over the building after hours and the approval came quickly. All smiles. Four days before we started shooting–after weeks of prep and the aligning of schedules and last minute castings and, and, and–the diner pulled out.

We lost our primary location with four days to go… and I didn’t have a backup. I called Tremendum Pictures head honchos Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff in a panic. First thing they said?

“Welcome to Indie filmmaking.”

Read the rest at Tremendum.com…

What’s it Like Going to a Hollywood Movie Premiere?

It was probably sometime between noticing Kathie Lee Gifford was sitting right behind me and the woman in front of me with a tray of chicken and waffles was offering to get me anything I wanted that my wife, Erin, turned to me and said:

“Whose life is this?”

I looked around the room at the afterparty–at the DJ rocking it way too loud, at the black ties and the short skirts dotting the reserved table areas and the free bar, at the pretentious Evian water in front of me (I’m not clear on how or why a bottle of water could earn the label “pretentious,” but I do know it fits). I looked at all of us–at me and Erin and Travis and Amber and Chris and Rich and Steve and Tyler and all of us from, of all the dusty places on the Earth, Fresno–who came down to LA to celebrate a movie we made. There was just one answer to the question.

Whose life is this? This is our life now.

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* * *

The fanciest of evenings started out, as it so often does not, in a McDonald’s parking lot… Click here to read the rest on Tremendum.com!

What It’s Like Behind the Scenes at a Test Screening

I went up to the concessions stand with my pink VIP ticket in hand. I stood in line like everyone else for a few seconds before glancing left to see a roped off register with signs reading “Reserved Entrance.” I made my way over.

“Hi,” the nice girl behind the counter said. “What can I get for you?”

“Um, what can I have?”

“Anything you want.”

I looked up at the LED menu. It stretched for miles. Popcorn. Hot Dogs. Ice cream. Sodas. Candy. Nachos. Pretzels. Too many to choose from.

“I’ll take one of everything.”

* * *

I’ve been working with Tremendum Pictures for a couple of months now and in that time I’ve learned one very important thing: this is what I should have been dreaming about all along. A couple of times a week someone will come up to me and say, “Man, how great is it you get to live your dream?” And I always say, “Actually, I’m not. I never dreamed this. I never dared.” Thank goodness someone else did. Or, rather, two someone elses.

Most of my time lately is spent working on a TV show I’m co-creating with Tremendum founders Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff, but I’ve also done some work as a production assistant and set designer on Chris and Travis’ movie, The Gallows, coming out July 10 from Blumhouse, New Line, and Warner Bros. I’m in “lucky to be here” mode and that’s not a bad place to be.

Friday evening, myself, Chris, Travis, and Production Associate Nate Healy piled into a car and drove down from Fresno to Long Beach for the final test screening of The Gallows. Unlike past test screenings, Chris and Travis, the writer-directors, weren’t scrambling at the last minute and staying up all night to make changes. Friday night was a night for relaxing, refusing the free drinks the hotel offered us when they found out what we were in town for (all four of us are Mormon), and playing board games until way too late. I don’t think “relax” has been part of Chris and Travis’ vocabulary lately. It was on that Friday night.

Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That's me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff.
Out in front of the Edwards 26 in Long Beach. That’s me on the left, then Brandon Jones, Nate Healy, and Travis Cluff. Photo by Chris Lofing.

The next morning, we got up, ate a hotel breakfast we probably should have passed on (I understand I did well in refusing the pancakes), and made our way over to the local Edwards 26 where we watched the movie through once to make sure there weren’t any picture or sound glitches. The movie’s sound designer, Brandon Jones, spent the entire test for the test screening jumping around to different seats in the auditorium to make sure everything sounded right from all angles.

The movie checked out and we had some downtime before the screening, so we busted out the board game BANG! and played in the open air admist the mall shops while waiting for lunch. The six of us (we were joined by another Tremendum associate, Rich Mirelez, just after the test for the test screening) drew some attention from an old man who stopped, hovered, and stared at the game for a little while in bewilderment before moving on.

At lunch we were joined by Dave Neustadter of New Line Cinemas, one of the producers on The Gallows. He picked up the tab. The big perk of these trips is that once we’re there we don’t pay for a thing. Normally, I’d try to refuse such kindness as I prefer to pay my own way, but this is just part of the deal. Besides, I figure New Line probably has more money than me. The Hobbits have been good to them.

After lunch, we walked over to the theater to see a big crowd out front, waiting to get in. The actual test screening is not managed by the studio itself, but by a third party company who recruits, organizes, and runs the whole show. They did a great job stacking the audience with the under 21 crowd, most of them big horror fans.

Soon, the big brass filed in, including studio heads from both Blumhouse and New Line. Dean Schnider, one of the producers on The Gallows and the guy who discovered Chris and Travis in the first place, introduced me to his boss as the writer of Tremendum’s next project. Not gonna lie, that was pretty cool.

As VIPs, we didn’t get wanded going in (they’re lucky I forgot my bomb at home) and we got our pick of goodies from the concessions stand. I asked for “One of everything” as a joke and quickly backed off of that with a laugh. Instead, I got a small popcorn, milk duds, and a Dasani water. Because I am pretentious and oh-so-Hollywood now. Don’t talk to me.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about actual Hollywood people so far: they’re pretty cool. Rather than the all-black clad, slicked back hair, sunglasses, and blue tooth headset types you might expect, they’re a pretty casual crowd dressed in t-shirts, jeans, and three-day-old scruff for the most part. If they’re feeling really fancy, they might toss on a plain button down shirt, open at the collar. They are excited, thoughtful, and, yeah, they cuss a lot. (Well, a lot for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve said the F Word, so my barometer might be a little different than the average person.) This all squares with my memories of the last time Hollywood invaded my life, back when my family was on Rescue 911. As Nate said as we drove back from the trip: “They’re just people.”

* * *

The Gallows synopsis on IMDB:

20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

* * *

Watching The Gallows with a crowd is the best possible experience. The energy coming off the audience was insane and, even though this was my fourth time seeing it, it was my favorite viewing of the movie without question. People were FREAKED OUT. This movie is intense, suspenseful, funny, emotionally involving, surprising, and just flat out SCARY.

Afterwards, Travis talked to the crew filming the audience with night vision cameras about how it went and was told that they got the best reactions they’d ever seen. Travis asked if this was their first time doing this sort of thing. He was assured it was far, far from the first time.

The theater was dead silent as questionnaires were handed out and the audience put their opinion of the move in writing. This is what were all waiting for. Does the movie work or not? You can’t argue with black and white.

While a bunch of strangers held their fates in their hands, Chris and Travis went from producer to producer, to studio head to studio head, taking in their notes and petitions for last minute changes. In two weeks, The Gallows will be submitted to the MPAA for a rating (going for a PG-13), and that means Chris and Travis only have that long to finalize the picture.

After all the questionnaires were filled out, a select group of people were asked to stick around for a focus group to offer up a more detailed analysis of the movie with questions like “Which scene did you like best?” and “Where would you rate the movie on a 1-to-5 scale?” Chris and Travis were on edge the entire time, just waiting for either worst fears to be realized or to have it confirmed they’d sealed the deal.

When the focus group finished, the numbers on the questionnaires came back. The real test is in the numbers. A movie like this, it’s all about word-of-mouth and if the audience doesn’t go for it, then you’re sunk. If The Gallows could hit a certain benchmark, then it would be in the same league as Blumhouse and New Line’s successful horror films like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, and The Conjuring.

The numbers were read off.

The Gallows doubled the benchmark. The focus group didn’t lie and everyone’s instincts about it were validated. People love this movie.

Everybody went nuts. Dave Neustadter turned around, cocked his arm back, and gave me the single hardest high five I’ve ever received in my life. He did the same with Brandon and Rich. No exaggeration, a full ten minutes later, Brandon turned to me and asked if my hand was still hurting like his. It absolutely was.

Everyone gathered around Chris and Travis to congratulate them. I got a little fanboy thrill as, at one point, I was in a circle of people that included Couper Samuelson, one of the producers on the Oscar-winning Whiplash; the head of Blumhouse, Jason Blum; and the head of New Line (and writer of one of my favorite films, Frequency), Toby Emmerich. I was basically invisible, but it was a pleasure to be there and hear these guys express their excitement for something my friends had created.

After everybody slapped backs, a few of the producers and the rest of us stuck around for some dinner. Again, New Line paid, but by then I was so full of popcorn and candy that would have been better eaten by a much, much younger version of myself that all I had was a cup of soup.

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Photo by Travis Cluff

This might have been my favorite part of the day. Everyone was in a great mood and just reveled in the fun that comes from seeing years of hard work come to fruition and paying off in spectacular fashion. These people really celebrate success, and that’s just not something I think we do enough of in the 9-to-5 world. I loved it. I loved that even though a lot of these guys have been doing this for a while, they still couldn’t help but be as giddy as those of us for whom this is all new.

Travis teared up a little at the table as he reflected on going from losing everything after being taken advantage of in a bad business deal, to winning on an episode of Wipeout in a desperate attempt to make some money, to meeting Chris, filming The Gallows, and then selling the movie. Theirs is the ultimate underdog story. Chris and Travis are a couple of nobodies from Fresno who have been scraping pennies together and working all hours of the day for the past four years to live this insane dream. If any two guys deserve success, it’s these guys.

I can’t help but be grateful that I get to be a part of any of this. I feel like I’ve been scooped up from the muck of unemployment, set high on the table, and asked to just partake of blessings I’m not totally sure I deserve. The time is coming fast for me to prove my worth in a more substantial way, and that’s great. That’s fantastic. I want that. I’m all in.

And I can’t friggin’ wait for July 10th.

Congrats, Chris and Travis. It’s not much longer now.

Travis and Chris
Travis and Chris. Photo by Nate Healy.

Update on the New Job (Plus, “The Shooting”)

Things have a been a little crazy lately.

Now that I’m all in at Tremendum, I’m seeing what it is to fully dedicate myself to those things I enjoy and I’m best at. And I love it.

Last week, we headed down to Hollywood for a small screening of The Gallows and to work on sound design. I was more in tagalong mode as I learn more about the process, but I was able to offer some input here and there. I’ve never been to a test screening and I found the entire process completely fascinating, especially the conversation afterwards with the focus group and the studio heads. There’s far, far more that goes into the creation of every single second of a movie than you could even guess at.

After the test screening. From L-R: 'Gallows' Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.
After the test screening. From L-R: ‘Gallows’ Writer-Directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, Sound Designer Brandon Jones, Production Associate Nate Healy, and me.

Most of my work at the moment for Tremendum is in developing and writing a post-Gallows project. More on that when I can share it, but I hit a real milestone this week by finishing a first draft. I didn’t expect to get it done as quickly as I have, but I guess I’ve got the fire in me right now.

In an odd way, moving so completely forward and quickly on a new project has caused me to reflect on old projects, particularly one I put away years ago.

Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming of Age Story Between Two Shootings is the first memoir I wrote and the one that allowed me to form a relationship with my literary agent, Bonnie Solow. For a variety of reasons, few having to do with the quality of the story or even the way I wrote it, it didn’t sell. But it’s still a book and a story I feel passionate about. I’ve already posted the prologue on this site, but, just for kicks, this week I’m going to serialize the first few chapters of RBDM.

I welcome your feedback. If response is good, maybe I’ll post more than a few chapters. In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

Here we go. The following is a true story:

* * *

Chapter One

Shooting

No one makes a living retailing junk food. Not one good enough to support a wife and four sons, anyway. The guns were what fed us. The bullets and the barrels sold right alongside the soda bottles and the Slim Jims put food on the table and gave us a home. Us, and Dad’s employees—both of whom had gone home early that night from the dirty little shop on the outskirts of Fresno. Bill’s Bait and Tackle closed at 5:00pm. Dad was alone for everything that happened afterwards.

A small business owner never clocks out. Not really. Once home, Dad could look forward to adding receipts and counting money long into the night. Might take even longer if his sons bristled once again at helping him or, even better, tempted him into a rubber band war. Closing time wasn’t particularly restful, but it didn’t require him to be a husband or a handy man or a father or a disciplinarian. All he had to do between the flipping of the “CLOSED” sign and the pulling of the car into his driveway—which probably needed to be cleared of bikes and toys—was to perform the routine.

Close out the register. Lock the freezer. Put away the inventory. Shut off the lights and secure the store with deadbolt and lock on the way out.

It took Dad a good fifteen minutes to pack up the dozens guns by himself. They were housed in two display cases doubling as the store’s front counters; Now and Laters and trucker hats making a pit stop on top of the .45’s and Thirty Ought Sixes on their way out the door. Dangling yellow tags attached to the guns on tiny, white strings shouted the sale price from behind the clean, always clear glass.

Dad removed the guns quickly, one by one, and placed them with great care into two long, black, clam shell cases for storage during the night. This was the puzzle to which only he had the picture. Without markers or leftover impressions on the foam pad lining the inside, he still knew the precise placement of each handgun and rifle inside their carriages. Once packed, he would transport the guns into the iron safe in the storage room just behind the freezers.

It was something Dad did night after night with little incident—with the exception of that night. On that night, he never made it to the safe.

Neither did the guns.

The two men kicked in the front door with a shout.

“YOU’RE DEAD, SUCKER!”

Their semi-automatics lit up only fifteen feet away from the fat man behind the counter, ejecting bullet after bullet directly at him. The first bullet rocketed towards Dad’s chest, but missed. The next went straight into his stomach, forcing him to double over from the impact. Not from the pain. That hadn’t registered yet.

Dad made a grab for his own gun stuck between the waistband of his pants and his hip. He got the weapon up and out, but didn’t have enough time to do anything productive with it as more bullets tore with great speed through his muscle and flesh, his body jerking with the impact of each one as it burst into him. His gun fell to the floor as he did, with a thud behind the open, sliding wooden doors of the display cases still filled with all the firearms he hadn’t had a chance to pack up yet.

The glass on the front of the cases exploded into twinkling, falling stars as the two men fired into them. Quickly, one of them collected the store’s most valuable merchandise into a bag while the other shooter fired even more bullets, this time at point-blank range, up and down my father’s body as he lay on the floor. Satisfied the store’s owner could not survive such a barrage, the men worked together to gather up the rest of their spoils as quickly as possible. When they were done, the only thing left on the carpeted shelves lining the now-broken cases was broken glass.

Dad, his pants and shirt already soaked red, had just enough of his wits remaining to grab his gun up off the floor to fight back. On his back and without much mobility, his mind ignored the swell of intense pain in his lower body while his hand searched, doing its best to find his metal piece before the shooters saw what he was doing. Frantic and fading, he grabbed one of the display guns that had fallen out of the cases instead. The yellow tag dangled.

click.

Display guns are never loaded.

The shooters gave Dad’s body one last sweep of bullets. His body jerked up and down on the hard, uncaring floor of the store. More blood exited from fresh wounds to make room for their hot new guests. Some bullets exited just as quickly as they entered. Others dug into Dad’s flesh and took residence.

Finally, the shooting stopped. Dad went still.

The two men, with bags full of black treasures, turned around and left in a hurry, slamming the door behind them.

* * *

Next: “The Call”