Go out and do it: a conversation with Brian Jordan Alvarez

Our convo from 2018 on Motivation & Grandmother's Gold

Brian Jordan Alvarez and the cast of  Grandmother’s Gold (2018)

If you're reading this right now, you can probably make something. From the device you're reading this on to that camera or guitar in your room. You can definitely create something. I'm not saying you have to, or maybe that you even should. Though, if you are someone who's creatively inclined, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you can do the thing that you want to do. You already have what it takes.

I'm not here to preach at you about the 'power at your fingertips', because not only would that make me, Tyler Scruggs, a massive hypocrite, because I do not make the best use of my time either. But the truth is that the tools & resources this millennium has access to in order to create art and media are… vast. Way more advanced than even just five years ago, and more frighteningly ubiquitous than ever.

Freelancing in any field isn't easy; the job insecurity alone can be reliably anxiety-inducing, but no one needs to be reminded of that. In trying to make a career out of your creativity, you're very much your own boss. We make up 36% of the U.S. workforce, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to do what you’d like to do exclusively, let alone creatively fulfilling.

Whether you’re in writing or music or acting independently on the Internet, creativity can become content. Art, be it comedy sketches or bedroom demo tapes, are competing for the same attention on the same platforms as corporations, media conglomerates, and pretty much all of Hollywood. More and more money and talent are competing for the same eyeballs you are. It can be wildly intimidating, infuriating, and can distort one's own self-expectations. The Internet is a fast-acting and addictive double-edge sword.

Which is perhaps one of the reasons why actor, writer, and director Brian Jordan Alvarez wrote his first feature-length film about a world lacking Internet access, all while uploading it for free to watch on YouTube?

I spoke with Alvarez on the phone last year, shortly after the release of his debut feature Grandmother’s Gold. It’s a zany, post-apocalyptic Christmas adventure comedy film that ended up being one of my favorites in 2018, and this conversation has only proved more valuable to me as time’s gone on, so I wanted to share it more or less in full.

Coming out of a darker state of mind that's consumed me this past year, I'm looking at projects and pieces left unaccomplished, one of which being this write-up and interview with Alvarez. Our chat quickly evolved from talking about Grandmother’s Gold and Alvarez’s process to a micro-motivational chat about my own endeavors, and some of the hurdles that stand between creatives on the internet and success.

The anxiety that comes with being a freelancer and a creative online can consume you, but you can’t let it. Distracting feeds of everyone else’s progress and accomplishments, and the demands and churn-rate of Social Media can’t stand in the way of making exactly what you, the creative, want to make.

One thing is obvious: it’s not stopping Brian Jordan Alvarez. Yes, his work is primarily on YouTube, where he distributes 'a variety of works for your viewing pleasure' to his 243K subscribers (it was just under 150k when we spoke). And in talking with him, I learned that just doing the damn thing and doing it often is a sure-fire way to get what you want made.

Alvarez's work is unique and charming in how casual it feels and how hyper-natural his scripts flow. Through swift, witty dialogue and with help from friends, namely frequent collaborator and best friend Stephanie Koenig, Alvarez crafts a relaxed but heavily-caffeinated version of earlier 30s queer life in Los Angeles through YouTube-published comedy skits, including the widely-acclaimed web series The Gay and Wonderous Life of Caleb Gallo. He’s perhaps most known by mainstream audiences as Jack’s boyfriend on the hit revival of NBC’s Will & Grace.

This transcript has been edited for grammar and clarity.

TS: Hey! Thanks for taking the time to talk. I'm a big fan, been a big fan for a couple of years now, and I finished watching Grandmother's Gold a few days ago. Firstly, congrats on the success, especially a hundred thousand views just in a day.

BJA: Thanks, man, yeah! More to come. I'm thrilled.

TS: My pleasure! One of the biggest things that I wanted to ask you -- especially in taking your format and style that you've established through all your sketches and Caleb Gallo -- were there any hesitations to bringing that same format and style to a feature-length film?

BJA: No, no hesitation at all. I think that's always been the intention in my soul. I've always wanted to make movies. Movies are my favorite thing, full-length movies. It just -- it takes a lot of stamina to make a feature. It's a long thing. It's like somebody training for a marathon, and I was training for it.

TS: Yeah, absolutely. That makes total sense. How long from writing to release did it take you to make Grandmother's Gold?

BJA: It was all pretty quick, I wrote it in November [2017]. Then, I took some time planning it, and then I got Will & Grace in between and shot Will & Grace -- which was a lot of big, beautiful energy. And then we were on hiatus, and I thought, "Ok, now is the perfect time to make this movie, cause I don't have anything else to do. Of course, I had auditions and other acting jobs but no huge, like, thing. So we shot it in April, and then I took about a month-and-a-half to two months to edit it. And then, we released it on July 10th [2018], which is my birthday.

I guess I would say November to July, but it could've been faster. There were long wall periods where I kind of would let it rest, mostly in the lead up to shooting. And once we shot it, I was working on it consistently through to when it was released. Between writing and then shooting it, there was maybe a three or four-month period away, 'cause I wrote it while I was in Amsterdam while I was on a trip with [co-star, writer, and frequent collaborator], Stephane Koenig.

TS: Oh, wow, that's amazing. I totally admire getting away and busting out a screenplay like that. As an aspiring filmmaker myself, I'm in awe of just like, the sheer quantity of high-quality stuff that you produce. Do you ever consider yourself a YouTuber? Or, are you very set in like, 'I am a filmmaker. This is what I do. I do not make YouTube videos, I make short films', and is that a distinction that you carry?

BJA: Well, this isn't a short film.

TS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I guess I just mean generally in terms of your online video, uh, content career to put it grossly.

BJA: Oh right, those are sketches, I think of them as sketches, not as shorts. I consider myself an actor, primarily, and then a filmmaker secondarily. Yeah, never a YouTuber, but I love YouTube very much! I don't want to like, shame on YouTube. I definitely have had a large amount of my success thanks to YouTube, but I think the word YouTuber doesn't accurately describe me. It implies video blogging, which is just not something I do.

TS: It was interesting watching the film as you kind of piece together, I presume this was intentional, just like, what genre of film I was watching. Because the way that the information is doled out and the way it was released, is like, yes, clearly you're in Los Angeles, but then you kind of learn that it's a sci-fi film of sorts, and then it's a Christmas movie of sorts, then it's an adventure film of sorts, and then it gets even more fantastical. What inspired you, I would ask, and what were the biggest challenges in juggling these genres? Or was that even something that crossed your mind?

BJA: It does not cross my mind. You're right to intuit that. There was no challenge, I mean, you know, I'm very grateful for the ability to get to make what I want, and the access that I have to do that, and the amazing people that are willing to work with me to create these things. There's not any challenge in the writing, it's what I want.

I mean, I would talk to people. Especially, Stephanie, I would tell her what I was thinking and if it was making sense and stuff when we were in Amsterdam. But I don't even remember when this story occurred to me. A lot of it is what it is because we wanted to use what was available to us. The city, natural land, and beaches were easy to shoot, you know because we don't have a separate station, although I look forward to having one. [Laughs]

My writing is very fast-working, especially when I'm writing I'm often writing on caffeine. So definitely pretty actively don't think much about that stuff, because I'm having so much fun, and if this felt like work, I don't know -- it wouldn't have that kind of joy. The joy that I'm having.

TS: The joy absolutely seeps through, and the fast-working mind. It just feels like, I just have never seen a transition from the sketches to Caleb Gallo to Grandmother's Gold having such consistency in style and... attitude, more specifically?

BJA: Thank you very much.

TS: I mean, you look at other filmmakers, and they often feel weighed down by conventions and structures, and even in just talking to you, it's clicking in my head now that you just don't think about those things, and it's not something that you regard. It's just like, this is the movie that I want to make. And it's about X, Y, and Z, and this is the pacing, and this is how it goes, and that's that. So it's blowing my mind a little bit.

BJA: Well, good man. But I also come from the world of improv. Tina Fey said something similar, she's one of my idols. Tina Fey learned — and I'm probably paraphrasing from an interview I saw — she said she learned through improv how to figure it out as you go, and to learn by doing, and to just make it up as you go.

And so I just, I don't thrive in like, in planning. Or, I do plan, it's just fun to figure it out by doing, you know? It's fun to just do it. I still do improv on the Groundlings main stage in a show called The Gail here in LA, and it's such a thrill.

If you can just make comedy up as you go, you know… [laughs]

TS: So I guess my question is: is that how you approach screenwriting? Are you just improv-ing with yourself? Is that a good way to put it?

BJA: A bit, yeah. I try and figure out the story first. Who was it -- somebody said 'begin with the end in mind.' That's somebody's quote. I don't know who it is. I do try to figure out the story, and then yeah, I improv my way through. Exactly. I mean, definitely. That's exactly what's happening.

But that's all that anybody's doing; they're improv-ing scenes with actors in their head, and writing down what they say. I'm very grateful to be able to hear all the great actors around me, in LA. So I get to hear their voices in my head. They inspire me.

TS: I lived in LA for a couple of years. And I used to perform at Meltdown Comics when that was a thing, and I was between the ages of 16 and 18 while I was doing that, so it was kind of spooky. And this was what, 6 years ago? I totally hear what you're saying, and what I'm gathering as someone who struggles to write a screenplay and get beyond page 30, like this conversation alone, has given me an espresso shot to be like, you know what? I've got the equipment, I've got the friends, I can even go make this feature without having to crowdfund or even promote and hype it.

BJA: Oh, god, yeah.

TS: It's just such a daunting task now! It feels like things are more accessible than ever, but there's a lot of mental red tape that the Internet puts on me. That's something that I try to investigate on my website and art...

BJA: Like what?

TS: Um… I don't know, even just having the…

BJA: You're scared people are going to say it's bad?

TS: I'm always scared people are going to say that it's bad, and of course people have. That's not the reason why I don't create or create films. It's more like I get bogged down by not being as skilled an editor or whatever as I'd like to be. Or this is not up to a professional par for me, even in rinky-dink short YouTube videos. There's a sense of hesitation that I personally carry in making art and releasing that art to the masses without constant consultation and input, and I don't know if that's just a slew of bad habits or weird wiring.

Part of me wants to go out somewhere like Amsterdam or into the woods or something and disconnect from the world and see what I can create from there. But that almost seems like a luxury I can't afford. Not even so much the time or the resources to get away, but more as a creator who's trying to build you know a name for myself, it feels like, every day that I'm not making something like "content", feels like some sort of missed opportunity at-bat to, to write that viral tweet or, you know, make that song that catches on or, you know, whatever, whatever I'm doing.

So, I'd like to look for ways to alleviate that. And I guess I'll leave you with that question like; what advice do you have for other young creators who feel that sense of hesitation in ultimately just hitting upload or me?

BJA: Do it. Just do it. Do it by doing it. Do it every day, and do what you want. You're not moving because you think you need to do something right, but do what you want. Joss Whedon does the same thing. Joss Whedon says he writes the easiest part first. He treats himself before he even does it. He'll go out for chocolate.

So do what you want, and do it by doing it. You don't need to study it, and you need to do it every day. You need to do some every day and not a lot every once in a while. You have energy every day, and use that energy to engage in your purpose every day. It's less than people think. You just do it every day. Because that's how a skyscraper gets built.

I always see these guys wandering around construction sites, and I'm like 'this looks so relaxed!' These guys, they just show up and they kind of like, do a little bit here and some other things there, but they just do every day for a long time, and then there's a fucking building that's like, fifty stories high! And they built it that way. It's coming every day to do some work, and that's how we get the things we want to get made, made. Mark Duplass has a great speech at South by Southwest 2015 keynote that I would recommend anyone listen to.

TS: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Brian. I sincerely appreciate it.

BJA: Thanks for calling, sorry I'm kind of coming down from the coffee, I'm often more cheery. But really, I'm so grateful and proud of you for, you know, even caring about doing the things that you want to do with your life. Because a lot of people never also engage with that, and they don't do the things that they want with their lives, so…

Grandmother's Gold is now streaming on YouTube.

You can catch Brian Jordan Alvarez on the final season of Will & Grace, currently on NBC.

Tyler Scruggs is a writer and musician living in Atlanta. When he’s not churning out internet content, he’s paying too much for coffee and buying movie tickets weeks in advance. Feel free to validate him on Twitter (@TylerScruggs), Instagram (@Scruggernaut), and YouTube.