Cal Barnes is the author of the novel True Grandeur. His play Rise won Best World Premier at The Hollywood Fringe Festival and was optioned for a film, here is a link to his IMDB page:
Q: What is True Grandeur about?
A: True Grandeur is a literary novel loosely based on events in my life and some of my experiences as an artist in Los Angeles. It’s heightened of course, but that’s the great thing about fiction. It’s the story about a young man named Conrad Arlington that moves to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist. Upon his arrival he struggles for a few years, then finds some success, which brings him to the attention of a more prominent group of people including Gracie Garrison, a beautiful, alluring, and mysterious socialite. The two of them spend a spirited and adventurous night on the town together, and Conrad ultimately falls in love with her, but when he awakes the next morning to find that Gracie is gone, he is distraught, and thus embarks on his relentless journey to find her, resulting in a down spiral of death, art, and romance as he searches his soul to try and uncover the greatest mystery of all – true love.
Aside from the obvious love story, True Grandeur is, at it’s core, an in-depth study on contemporary romanticism. One of my goals with writing the book was to attempt to accurately illustrate the internal progression of the artist journey in a way that readers — artistically inclined or not — can understand. It’s layered with themes. I love themes. Themes have always been there. I believe themes are what makes us human and that we can all relate to them on some level. I think they are the foundation for good art because they take something very universal from life or society and reflect it back on ourselves and force us to confront the truth and how that relates to modern times. Some basic themes explored in True Grandeur are self-discovery, the human need for individuality and importance, and how circumstantial and sociological factors such as wealth, fame, and social class influence an individuals ability to receive — or not receive — true love.
Q: What experiences did you draw from in writing the book?
A: Oh wow. Where to start. Basically, the experience of writing True Grandeur was one of the most beautiful and terrible experiences I have ever had to go through as a person or artist. It was such a specific time in my life. I had such a tumultuous amount of feeling going on it was unreal. I wrote hard, and I wrote fast, and I finished the first draft in just a little over a month. I had so much artistic inspiration coursing through me it was practically endless, but my life was a complete wreck — it’s funny how those two seem to coincide — I would be so high one day, then so low the next, nobody knew what would happen, including my closest friends. I remember being in this girls apartment one night just screaming and yelling and crying my eyes out. If it wasn’t for one of my closest friends pulling me out of there I would have probably tore the place down, haha. It’s really kind of ridiculous looking back on it, but when you love someone — or think you love someone — it can make you do crazy things. I don’t know, I’ve always thought there is something beautiful about a bad romance to a degree. It’s completely self-destructive and I would never suggest it to anybody, but there’s something beautiful about loving another person that hard — all that passion and feeling — it shows we’re still human.
In hindsight, I suppose it’s not so much about the experiences I had as what I learned from them — be careful who you give your heart to; never fall in love with an idea of someone; be slow to fall in love, but when you do, love hard; people are flawed and that’s okay, if it’s meant to be, it shouldn’t be that difficult; never get bitter, always maintain that zeal; and most importantly, when in doubt, create — all in all I am extremely proud of this novel. I took one of the darkest times of my life and created something beautiful out of it that I perhaps could never create at any other time, and now that’s been solidified forever. I’ve always had a great deal or respect for people that do that, that is, create in a place of darkness. It takes a lot of bravery. I think there’s a lot to be said for it, and I believe that’s where the majority of the true art comes from in the world, that is, the greatest possible expression of oneself, and I aspire to get there someday.
Q: Who are some of your literary influences?
A: I’m really inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald. All cliches aside, he has a superb grasp of the english language and the prose and diction of his novels is like a master class in literary writing. Really, the way he describes things and individuals, it’s really beautiful… people just don’t seem to think or write like that anymore. There’s so much weight to it — so much truth — and if you look at his life, he really infused it into his writing. He really was a true romantic. The fact that he was this extremely prominent man, and practically lived his entire life for one woman — man, that just flat out blows my mind. There’s something so beautifully tragic about it I can’t help but be affected. I remember finishing part 1 of Tender is the Night last year, and I had to set it aside for a time. I just couldn’t keep reading, it was that heavy. I just recently cracked it open again to give book 2 a go, so we’ll see how far I get, but no promises. I also enjoy the works of Fante, Bukowski, West, Huxley, Dickens — many of which are noted in the novel — and for modern writers I really like Chuck Palahniuck, a bit of a far cry from the kind of stuff I write, but I think he’s got a unique voice and I really enjoy his take on things. Other than that I really want to read more modern writers. It can be difficult to find the time in this information age of technology where we are constantly inundated and streamlined with information, but there is so much talent out there and so many unique voices, and I want to be sure to explore them as much as I can in my time.
Q: The heroine of your story is rich and beautiful, what sets her apart from other rich and beautiful heroines?
A: Gracie really is a lovely character, and there are so many qualities about her that are so beautiful and full of life, and at the same time, so devoid and tragic. She’s completely true and completely false at the same time, and she manages to do it flawlessly. In my opinion, she’s really the epitome of the beautifully tragic heroine. She has so much power — her looks, her attitude, the general way about her — that Conrad falls in love with her on sight. She’s really almost half-idea, half-person because she’s so shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows anything about her, and I think in that some way that adds to that almost magnetic affect of her allure. I see a lot of Gracie in a lot of the girls that have crossed my path over the years out here in Hollywood. The term ‘starlet’ really is perfect because I think it describes these types of girls precisely. It’s always the talented ones. They can be so easy to fall in love with. They burn bright and beautiful on the surface, but go an inch deeper and you find a soul that is hurt, lonely, and completely, completely terrified with the world. A lot of the girls I’ve met over the years are riddled with anxiety and other crippling, psychological factors such as that. It’s really, really, sad because a lot of them are, or have been, close friends and I want nothing more than to help them, but there’s really nothing anyone can do, they have to find that strength for themselves. I think that’s what Conrad sees in Gracie. He sees someone that’s completely talented and beautiful and has so much to potentially offer the world, and if she could only love and accept herself, she would be free to have everything that she could have. It completely makes sense why starlets such as Gracie are depicted so much in art, it’s because there is something so entirely fascinating about them — all that chaos — it’s irresistible really, and I find myself undeniably attracted to this sort of behavior on a very primal level. It’s exciting, and unpredictable, and completely frustrating. I think most of the world is attracted to it. It’s entertainment.
Q: Your play RISE won Best World Premier at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, why do you believe it won?
A: Great question. The process of writing Rise was such a unique experience, and probably the single most important project of my career to date for a variety of reasons. It really showed me that no matter the scope, budget, or size of the project, at the end of the day, it’s really all about the work — it’s all about the truth — we started with a group of four people that were extremely passionate about theatre, acting, writing, and art, and just wanted to make something beautiful. The subject matter I chose was extremely close to home, and completely personal, and I remember being terrified throughout the writing process because I was confronting fears and doubts about something that completely influenced me growing up, and, for better or worse, has shaped me into the person I am to day. Regardless, my friends at Zenith Ensemble — that was Brett Colbeth, Aaron Lyons, and Gowrie Hayden at the time — continued to push me, and we really all were relentless on each other in our quest for true expression. We didn’t have any money really, so we had to focus on what we could control, that being the art — the writing, the acting, the directing — and so that’s what we did to the best of our ability, and we won. It was really eye opening. Of course Zenith marketed the shit out of it to get people in seats, but at the end of the day, it was the work that made it happen. A person can pull as many strings and work as many angles out here as they want, and maybe, someday, they’ll get an audition for a James Cameron film or get they’re script to Steven Spielberg, but if they get there and the work doesn’t hold up, nobody cares. They won’t hire them and it’s like it never happened. It’s always, always all about the work. We did the best work we can and that’s why I believe it won, and I’ll never forget the experience of working on it. It was truly an amazing time.
Q: How did it get optioned?
A: This is another great story. Brett Colbeth — a good friend of mine and the star of Rise — got a lot of recognition for the show. I’d say he even got more recognition that the play itself, meaning his performance transcended that of the character written on the page, and I couldn’t agree more. I’m sure he’d agree that Henry Donner — that’s the name of his character in Rise — is the most important character he’s portrayed to date, career wise, that is, and what he did next was really smart. Basically, the play did much better than any of us really expected going in — after all, we started with basically nothing — and after it won there was a lot of talk of what would be done with it next. I heard rumors that some other parties were asking around to see if anyone had optioned it yet, and people started showing interest. Basically, Brett did what any smart ambitious actor basically needs to do this day and age to guarantee that he would get to keep his role in the film version and that it wouldn’t be taken out from under him — he needed to own it — he quickly and strategically started a production company with a group of investors from the Chicago area, and temporarily optioned the film and stage rights, with the option to buy the film rights or extend the option when the time comes. It was win/ win for all of us, and he did what I think is completely necessary as an actor in this day and age. Great roles get taken from deserving unknowns all the time to give to name talent, and from a producing standpoint this completely makes sense because as a producer you’re not only looking out for the artistic integrity of the film, but the return on investment, potential for distribution, festival entry, etc, so really the only way to guarantee anything in this industry is to own it, and that’s what Brett did. That’s basically why I started writing and producing for the screen in the first place a few years ago — to guarantee good roles for myself and my friends — it’s really the only surefire way to move forward, and then if you book something on the side, it’s like icing on the cake. I know Brett’s got big plans for the play and film, not sure what they are yet but if he’s behind it I know it’s going to be great. He’s really having a lot of success, and we’re all really busy with other projects but I think we all plan to come back to it sooner than later. He’s mentioned trying to take the stage version of Rise to the Northwest for a rendition, and if so I think that would be great because I think people would really connect with it up there. It really also be great to see it play in my home city — scary but great — I hope it does.
Q: Why do you think Hollywood stories are so popular?
A: I think people are generally fascinated with what fascinates people, and what fascinates people is Hollywood, literally and figuratively. Hollywood is arguably the most influential city in the world in terms of what dictates cultural and social trends, and I think if most people are given a chance to take a look at what goes on inside this influential city, they’ll generally take it. I mean just look at the tabloids in the check-out lines. I at least like to believe that most people are intelligent enough to realize that it’s mostly lies and made up stories that are blown way out of proportion, but does that stop people from buying it? Of course not. It’s entertainment. Actually, the only people I’ve ever met that don’t generally like stories about Hollywood are people from Hollywood. A lot of people here don’t like seeing their true selves reflected back at them, it hurts too much. Don’t believe me, trying pitching a true noir script to a studio exec, they run for the hills, haha. I really love noir films and books and stories about Hollywood. They used to make them all the time. I hope to see more in the future.
Q: What sort of a day job do you have and how does it influence your writing?
A: I’ve worked all sorts of side jobs since moving to Hollywood. In my first two years I think I went through something like ten or eleven jobs. It was a crazy time. I parked cars, bussed tables, tried to get job as a bartender or barback and failed over and over again — they say it’s easier to get a job as an actor out here than a bartender, kinda true — I even chauffeured for a while. That was fun. I drove this hundred thousand dollar house car around for a hotel when I was twenty-one. It was great. On any given day there would be a celeb or a porn star in the back seat, and I’d drive them to wherever the hell it was they had to go to. This one time this pop-up internet millionaire tipped me like three hundred bucks each way. I lived like a rockstar for a day after that, haha, then it ended. I got fired from all my food industry jobs almost immediately. I just never had the temperament for it. I don’t care who a person is, if you treat somebody like they’re less than you over food, you’re nobody in my book. I just don’t have any respect for that, but I have a lot of respect for waiters and always try to tip well. There’s nothing worse than somebody that doesn’t tip, except somebody that thinks they’re better than you because they’re sitting down at the table you’re not, and those people are usually one in the same. Fortunately, I’ve refined my lifestyle to a point where I’ve learned to live below my means and I don’t have to work a survival job all that much anymore, and can focus mainly on my writing, acting and other projects I’m producing, such as Adolescence, my current feature film project I’m making with one of my best friends, Mickey River. Still, I usually work one or two side jobs a week to slow the burn and make sure I have a steady income coming in. I’ve work for a company called Hollywood Hills Valet one or two nights a week for the last three years or so. It’s pretty great. It’s really flexible, and the events are completely random. I work everything from EDM parties to wedding’s at the beach. I’m always meeting interesting people, and after a week of hard writing or auditioning or filming or what have you, I welcome the chance to get out of my head and get out into the world. It’s all balance. As soon as I started viewing ‘normal work’ as a way of supporting myself, my goals, an my career instead of chore that was just part of life and just had to be done, everything changed, and I find that I write and create better because of it. I’m also lucky to have a very supportive father. I don’t lean on him and he wouldn’t let me if I wanted to, but he’s helped me through some really lean times and it’s nice to know in a worst case scenario I’d never end up on the street. A lot of my friends don’t have that luxury so I’m really thankful.
Q: If you could change one thing about Hollywood what would it be?
A: Oh wow, I have so many opinions about Hollywood and the way things are that I could probably write an entire separate book about it, haha, someday maybe. But seriously, Hollywood is such a specific place. It’s given me so much already — a career, friends, identity, opportunity — that I have a hard time talking bad about it, but next to that, there are a lot of things about Hollywood that I think aren’t working and if changed would really better our community here, and because Hollywood is so influential, I suppose that could influence society as a whole. I guess it’s not so much Hollywood as the people running it and living in it. There are a lot of takers and users out here, but that’s just part of it. I’ve been used, a lot of my friends have been used, it happens. The users and takers are a dime-a-dozen and you just have to move through them. They’ll get out of your way if you know what you want. They prey on the needy and helpless — out of work actors, writers — it’s really sick but it happens everyday. It’s sort of a refining process. The one’s that survive will ultimately be better for it, and the one’s that don’t will inevitably go home. That’s just the way it is and it’s always been that way. I think I’m a perfect example of someone who’s gone through it and come out a better person, at least I hope so. The users can be beautiful, but you learn to sniff them out early and learn from your mistakes. Aside from that, Hollywood is arguably the most creative city in the world, and there are a lot of amazing and talented people here, and we all find each other eventually — the true people always find each other.
Another thing I would probably change if I could is the way people seem to view each other in general. A lot of times it feels like everybody views everybody as an opportunity — a job, money, sex, etc — out here rather than an individual person. It’s almost like people are a commodity. I understand this to a degree because a lot of people that move here are extremely passionate about what they do and want to rise to the top as quickly as possible — I am one of those people to an extent — but honestly, the quicker someone ditches this mentality the better off they will be. It’s all about loving what you do and doing it as good as possible. It’s not about talking, or networking, or socializing — it can be at times — but it’s really not. It’s all about the work and the people you surround yourself with and the true relationships you build because of it. People are still people whether you live in Hollywood or not, and the worth of the individual person should always be of paramount importance. It’s really crazy watching how it works sometimes. I’ve been here for almost five years so I guess I’m sort of just getting used to it by now, but everyday I see people use people, and use people, and then someone they think is better comes along and they just drop the last person like they never even existed, it’s really sad and there’s no truth to that at all, and it almost always backfires. I think half the battle is just trying to maintain a general appreciation for people. You do that and you’d be amazed at how people are drawn to you. I’ve met so many amazing people this last year, and it’s just because I showed a general interest in who they were. Maybe if enough people do it, we can change the town someday.
Lastly, I’d probably have to point out the dating scene out here and call it out for being nearly pointless. It’s completely in the gutter in my opinion. Seriously, it can be really hard to understand if you have even one romantic bone in your body, and it’s tough because you feel this pressure to adapt and lower your standards on what intimacy is almost immediately. Here’s a perfect example. I met this girl a while back and we hit it off immediately. We were both really attracted to each other and everything was going well, then one day as we started to get closer, she told me she wanted to cut it off because she felt that I was becoming too important and she didn’t want to risk ‘developing any feelings.’ I just remember being at a loss for words and really confused, and that’s just one story amongst a series of interesting experiences. I still have yet to meet someone in Hollywood that has a decent grasp on what, in my opinion, a healthy relationship is. To sort of be frankly straight-to-the point, there’s a lot of people out here that will have sex with you — and there’s a time and place for that — but start moving towards something real, and they’ll run for the hills. I guess I understand it to some degree. I’ve had my heartbroken once now and have no desire to have it happen again, but you cannot be afraid to feel. You gotta stay open. That’s the job of the artist anyway, to be open and vulnerable to take the hit, and the second they get cold or bitter or close down, it will effect the depth and quality of the work, guaranteed. You look at the depth and quality of some of the films now getting made for hundreds of millions of dollars — I’m talking the stereotypical, regurgitated, formulaic blockbusters here, not the good one’s like Nolan’s re-visioning of the Batman series, which I thought was genius — and it makes you wonder how they even got made in the first place. all that flash and money, but there’s no truth, and I think it’s about time for a change. If you look at the history of Hollywood, every twenty to thirty years or so there is a revolution where the industry is completely flipped on it’s head. It happened in 60’s and the rise of independent cinema, and then again in the mid-seventies when Spielberg did Jaws and started the blockbuster and it’s basically been rising steadily ever since. I think people are at a point now where they want more than blockbusters and fantasy-themed series novels, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think society is hungry for something more human and closer to home, and I think a lot of young artists living in Hollywood right now aspire to give that back to them, but it all starts in our backyard.
Q: What do you miss about Portland?
A: First, the coffee, bar none. I am one hundred percent addicted to caffeine, and I have no plans on changing that, ever. I straight up love coffee. Black. No cream or sugar or any of that nonsense. I start my morning everyday with a french press, and I really miss me a cup of good ol’ Stumptown. I do know they are starting to distribute their beans out of select places here in Los Angeles, but it’s just not the same without the cold weather to back it up. I love the sun here in LA and would never trade it in, but there’s just something about the ‘feel’ of Portland that is really comforting. You don’t really realize it until you’re gone for a while, but coming back is always a trip. I can practically feel my heart rate drop immediately as I fly into the city. Also, I miss Portland’s culture for sure. It’s slower in the Northwest, and I feel people are generally more open and interested in other people for intellectual qualities than here in Los Angeles. All in all, LA is a film town. The energy here is high and everything is moving all the time, and not to mention the population is like a gazillion times more. Portland is a town filled with artists and intellectuals that prefer a different way of life, and I think there’s a side of myself that will always crave that. The architecture in Portland is beautiful and there is inspiration on almost every street corner. A lot of artists in LA have places in Portland as well, just to balance everything out, and vice versa. Who knows what the future holds, but I really see myself getting back up there someday. I think Portland would be a great place to write a book. I wrote True Grandeur about Los Angeles while living in Los Angeles, but I’d love to write a novel while living in Portland someday. I think it would really bring things full circle.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)