Actor, writer, and director Ben Samuels discusses the creativity we’re all born with – but only some pursue.
By Ben Samuels
Every child dreams. Runs, plays, imagines, creates. Every child wants to sing or dance or make believe, creating entire worlds in playrooms and backyards. At some point, however, there is The Great Tragedy in most people’s lives. A moment when most children “grow up” and tell themselves, “This isn’t the thing I can do for the rest of my life. This isn’t an adult thing. This isn’t a responsible thing. This is no longer a part of me.
We’re all born artists. Most of us choose to become something else, but it isn’t something that comes as naturally. What’s natural is imagination. What’s natural is creation. What’s natural is listening to that inner impulse to celebrate and reflect life with a dynamic voice that is uniquely our own.
I picked up my first VHS camera for my eleventh birthday party when my dad offered to “make a movie” for us instead of play the usual backyard games. Together with my best friends, who I am still closest to today, we ran around in 1990s sweatpants and shot James Blonde: Double-O-Heaven. With a fake missile stolen by evil Ofeld and Dr. Claws with the robot hand from Toys “R” Us, we were hooked and never put the camera down again.
Through middle and high school, we rotated writing, directing, and always acting. We made shorts, music videos, and, finally, two features to cap off high school. In the dead of Pennsylvania winter with frostbitten hands or sweltering in the heavy humidity of summer, we couldn’t be stopped. More accurately, we wouldn’t stop. It was pure, untainted passion – an overflowing of purpose and satisfaction.
We bonded over an Indiana Jones spoof that nearly lit my friend’s house on fire and broke one of his arms, and pompously overwrote adaptations of school literature. When we “grew up,” however, everything changed.
One of my oldest and dearest friends had a true gift. He started The Swamp Band, playing country classics like Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special, simultaneously tearing it up on two harmonicas, a banjo, and a voice that just wouldn’t quit. He literally shut down traffic more than once playing town fairs and local gigs. Today, that same friend works four jobs, serves in the Navy Reserves, and does all that on top of his full- time gig as manager of a 300+ acre produce and livestock farm.
He’s the most incredible man I know. There’s nothing he can’t do – except the one thing he didn’t.
People in the biz love to talk about long hours; they’ve never worked factory shifts or been farmers. And we “in the biz” get to go to work at creative epicenters where every day and every project is different. Each moment working in this creative universe, I feel younger. I feel like that eleven-year-old with a VHS camera again. There’s no doubt it’s business and starting LLCs, filing for tax credits, managing contracts and audits, hiring and firing; all those have become part of the deal as well, but never at the expense of the pure creative joy from my youth. My friend, on the other hand, looks more tired every time I see him. We’re both only 28. The difference is that I’m at the very beginning of something and he’s staring down the barrel of the rest of his life until retirement.
Back East this Thanksgiving, I can’t wait to see him and all the faces from our old home movies again. I love the small town I’m from, but, more than anything, I’m thankful that no one there, starting with my own family, told me I couldn’t dream – I couldn’t create or imagine professionally. Most people I went to school with weren’t so lucky.
This isn’t a pretty business and the success rate is low, so no one in good conscience can recommend a job in our world too strongly, but I adamantly believe that the price of a good life well lived is always worth paying, no matter how high. It may mean moving across the country and entire countries, leaving friends and family, breaking out on your own, and letting people down. But never yourself. I consider it a healthy selfishness and the people in your life who see that you have a profound need to follow your inner voice will understand. The others want you to live life their way and that’s not in the cards for creatives.
I often discuss life in terms of content versus happy. While they may not seem mutually exclusive, content is paying your bills, supporting your lifestyle, having that home and family, and generally passing one day to the next avoiding real discomfort. That can be a good life. I grew up in a very content town and I’m thankful for it. But happy is something else entirely. Happy is a battle hard fought, a passionate enterprise that requires recommitment day in and day out; happy is fearlessness in the face of adversity and determination to be your fullest, best self.
I am a creative. I grew up with creatives. I only wish I wasn’t the only one who received the unconditional support and encouragement to stick it out. The big money and big success have yet to find me, but that seems all too irrelevant. I know that the alternative course of my life is dissatisfaction. I still get to dream, run, play, imagine, and create.
One of the marvels of filmmaking is that it employs every skillset, from carpenters and costumers to mechanics and musicians. There’s a place for everyone and the greatest joy I get is giving friends from my hometown a job on set. In those moments, we recapture the unbridled joy of creating from our youth.
I’m thankful that my future still is and has always been creative. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to share that with the people who shaped and inspired me. I’m thankful for the backyards of a small town and the studios of a big city. This Thanksgiving, and every one to follow, I hope more and more people are thankful that they never had to stop creating.