BUGS – The illness that ended my career
This story was written in 1994 while I was recuperating at my sister’s house in East Hampton.
The writing style is rough and pathetically stylistic. I had not yet learned to write, so please forgive
attempts at cuteness and all of the spelling and grammatical mistakes. I wrote this longhand and
typed it on my sister’s portable Olivetti. Rough indeed, but I think it’s an important story because it
documents the illness from which I never fully recovered, and which ended my career as a film
director. If any of you ever wondered how, after all the success I experienced, I wound up broke,
the answer is in this story.
The illness that ended my career
by Shaun Costello
This is a link to the film WRITING FOR TIME
I first visited Time Inc., as it then was, in the Spring of ’88. I met
Kelly Knauer, Claudia Brown, and some others. They seemed very enthusiastic
about what I showed them. I had developed a technique, not quite
perfected, for using small format video and manipulating the molecules
until the picture had an urgent, exciting look. Kelly kept me in his office
most of the afternoon and introduced me to several Time Inkers, all of
whom seemed thrilled about my work. Kelly has no project now, but as soon
as he does hey, sounds good to me.
Meanwhile the advertising world discovers my “look” and I become sort of
popular. Do some work, make some money.
Although busy, I keep Time Inc. on my ” every two months you get a call
whether you need it or not” list. After many phone calls, in the summer
of ’90, Claudia Brown tells me about this guy, Peter Viola, whose got a
video project. So I call. So I visit.
He likes my stuff, but he’s nervous. He wants to know about 8mm video and
why I like to use it. So I make my “small format video speech”. Something
he’s heard countless times since, ad nauseum I’m afraid. But hey, I’m
I tell him about the smallness, the lightness of the camera. How I can hold
it for long periods of time, waiting for a shot to happen. How the camera
doesn’t intimidate people, so you can get past the natural resistance in an
interview a lot faster. How I can let the tape roll, while I wait for a
magic moment t happen. How the smallness of the crew makes for a more
intimate shooting atmosphere. He asks about the cost difference. Good
question. I tell him that money should not be the issue, not the way I
shoot. I tell him that whether he chooses to shoot in 16mm film, Betacam,
or small format video, the issue should not be which costs less, but
instead, which format will capture the images he wants.
I had never used small format video because it was cheaper. I had been
fortunate to work for advertising agencies, as well as corporate clients
who went for the look and feel of what I did as a deciding factor in
hiring me. Not the cost. I got them more, I didn’t cost them less.
So he hires me. But not before I give him the same five answers to five
thousand more questions. “Jesus”, I think to myself, “this guy is really
nervous.” I remember him sitting on a spare desk, in a hallway, outside his
old office on the eleventh floor in the Time-Life building, telling me
“Shaun do you realize that a week from now we could be in Egypt?” EGYPT!??
Christ, I didn’t have a check yet. I couldn’t be in Great Neck.
So, he hires me. Not because I’ll save him money, but because I’ll get him
what he wants. He hires me because I have a passion for what I do. He
hires me because I leave a little bit of myself on every frame I shoot.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
The cameras are always trying to protect themselves, so you have to constantly
fool them into allowing you to get the shot you want. I can remember Janice
Simpson, a Time reporter, interviewing a man in Brooklyn, who had been
mugged seven times. It was the most I struggled with the small format
technology during this project. The aperture kept shutting down. I kept
fooling it into opening back up. The focus shifted. So, I fooled it into
shifting back. Oops, there goes the aperture again. Meanwhile, what is she
saying? Do her eyes sparkle? Do I believe her? Oops, there goes the
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
I can not look through a lens without trying to make some magic happen. It’s
both my joy and my curse. Magic doesn’t happen by pointing a camera and
turning it on. Magic happens through struggle and sweat and doing battle
with the visual elements involved, until you’ve sorted them out to the point
where they tell the story that you origionally conceived when you first
looked through the lens. I cannot help but go through this process every
time I push the button. This is why I’m so exhausted after I work. This is
why he hired me.
We shoot the job. We travel. We get along. We see things we havn’t seen
before. We have fun. Peter turns out to be a great client, mainly during
the edit. He protects me from the suits. He lets me tell Time Magazine’s
story my way. I look at the footage, like I always do, I struggle with
the story I’m trying to tell, like I always do. .WHERESTHESTORY, WHERESTHESTORY.
Then, I have a dream, like I always do. I see the story in a pattern of
boxes, wake up in the night and write it down. It makes complete sense to
me. I fax it to Peter in the morning. Chuck, Peter’s boss, tells him, “It’s
great, keep him dreaming.”
So, we finish. But not before we have some minor, but typical, corporate
interference from Time execs who wonder, “Why are they breaking new ground
with brilliance, when mediocer but on-time would do just as nicely?”
An exhausted Peter, video cassette tucked under his arm, hops on the plane
for the presentation in Orlando. “Remember Peter, a year from now all this
will be forgotten. But the work, with your name on it, will live forever.”
So, we did it. I look at it today, and it’s still the best promotional video
that I’ve ever seen. Peter knew what he wanted. I was the right choice
for the job. There was enough money in the budget, and enough time to sort
it all out. Bravo, all concerned.
I take a vacation, shoot seme commercials, four months later I get a call
from Chuck. “REDISCOVER AMERICA”, a 30 second TV spot. I work mostly with
Chuck on this one. Peter is doing 10 projects at once and is looking frazzled.
There’s enough money and time, and it seems to go pretty well. The on-camera
interviews are good, but the spokes person sucks. I hate him. I remember
saying to all concerned, after casting, “Anyone but him”. Of course, he’s
their unanimous choice. Oh, well.
I have the usual struggle with the small format cameras. There are a few
interviews I can’t use, one problem or another. But we’re budgeted enough
so that I have plenty to work with. I make video prints of all the interviews
and put them in an order that seems to make sense. Chuck and Peter
cone to the editing room at Vic Losick’s and we put it together. Looks
good. We agree. Chuck asks, “What about that other black guy, the teacher?”
I tell him there was a problem with the shot.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
We get good feedback from the advertising agency. The finished product looks
good, with the exception of the spokes person with the migrain. Why is it
he looks so right in the Advil spot?
It’s 1991, and I have the best year ever. Win some awards, do a video for
Pace University, and several commercials. DOLLARSDOLLARSDOLLARS
Peter calls me late in the year. We should talk. Chuck does most of the
talking. There are projects in the works but Time-Warner, as it now
is, has installed an in-house, give a child a camcorder, production group.
Their work is dreadful, but the stockholders are saving sheckels so guess
who gets the projects. Chuck says he’s got something he wants to do, but
no money. He uses the FAVOR word. He uses it several times during the
meeting. I figure, “What the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
I tell him I’ll do it, but there’s something about it that bothers me.
Chuck’s got three thousand bucks to do a three or four minute piece. By
the time I buy the stock, pay the crew, and do the transfers, I will be out
a thousand dollars. “But what the hell, these guys have been good to me”.
Of course, I fail to mention that I’ve been good to them. But the money
is not what bothers me. They want to do the edit. MAJOR ANXIETY ALARM.
No client has ever looked at my dailies. EVER. There are so many problems
inherent in the technology that I use that I begin to worry: What if there
aren’t enough shots? What if the miniscule budget doesn’t cover the three
or four days I need to get the material? How will Peter handle the edit,
considering the constant techical fuck ups in the technology: the drop
out, the blanking,etc ?
I remind Peter and Chuck of the origional spiel I gave them, “I don’t use
small format video because it’s cheaper.”. I am very worried about this.
Chuck uses the FAVOR word again and I tell them I’ll do it. But Chuck
knows, and he’s right, that I can’t look through the lens without trying
to make some magic happen. So he figures that I’ll give him something he
can use, even though there is no budget and Peter will be going through the
dailies. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m very worried
We shoot the job. I have Steve Robinson do the transfers because I have a
meeting on another project. Steve has worked for me for four years and
knows the drill, but an odd thing happens. I check in with Steve in the
transfer room late in the day, and he’s watching MTV while transfering video
tape. “How’s the footage?”, I inquire, like he’s even looked at it. I
do not have the budget to go through the material again, and hope that he’s
actually seen some of it; inbetween Michael Jackson and Madonna, of course.
The funny thing is that I’m the one whose losing money here. Steve is
getting his normal day rate, but he’s copping an attitude because there’s
no money in the budget for dinners and such. I’m losing money and he’s
slacking off. I have trouble understanding this.
I see the finished video and I don’t like it, but of course I don’t say much
to Peter and Chuck. It’s slow and the shot selection is not what I would
have made, but what the hell, its a finished product, made for nothing. Peter
and Chuck seem pleased.
There are dark clouds on the horizon now. Time-Warner is not my only client
to install in-house, give a child a camcorder production departments. CBS,
ABC, and my two biggest ad agencies follow suit. Well, it was nice while
it lasted. Suddenly I can’t get any work. My savings begins to disappear.
The shaky economy has caught up with me. Trouble with Inge begins. I am
depressed. Peter calls.
Another little video. Another no money for this project. Another favor.
“But what the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
Even though Steve robinson is getting his day rate (I never asked him to take
less) he begins fucking up the audio in a major way. This has been coming
for a while now. I’d been listening to his whining about his unhappy, unfullfilled
life, and dealing with his ever present arrogance. I’d even had to
endure his flirtations. But now, bad audio. I’m so mad at him that I don’t
pay him for the job. I’m running out of money and I figure if I pay him
I’ll lose $800, but if I don’t pay him I’ll make $1000. So I don’t.
We finish the video and the result is about the same as the first. Peter
and Chuck seem pleased and I hate it. There are some good shots, but the
edit is way off and Peter is beginning to grumble about problems he’s
having with certain shots. Problems with certain shots???? He used to do
this for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Now he’s doing it for five.
He’s lucky he’s not having problems with all the shots.
My personal situation has grown darker. Old clients^have dried up. New
projects are collapsing. Money is scarce. My financial situation has put
a major strain on my relationship with Inge. By late ’92 we are talking
about splitting. Inge has been the one unshakable constant in my life for
the last nine years, and now it seems to be eading. I am unprepared for
severity of the depression I feel. Suicide is now a consideration. But wait
a minute, hold everything. Peter’s on the phone.
Another little video. Another no money for this project. “But what the hell,
these guys have been good to me.”. Wait a minute, where’s the favor part?
Nobody mentions the FAVOR word. Then it comes to me in one of those MARLON
BRANDO APOCALYPSE NOW DIAMOND BULLET IN MY FOREHEAD moments. This is no
longer a favor, it’s a job. The five thousand dollar video has become a way
of life for these guys. This was no longer a “Let’s do this to show the boys
upstairs so we can get money for the big one.”. THIS WAS THE BIG ONE.
Time-Warner, my favorite client had become a charity case. But hey, so was
I. I had finally done what I said I would never do. I was shooting small
format video because it was cheaper. Strangely enough, something else bothered
me even more. Peter and Chuck were both kvetching about their respective
positions at T.W. They were biding their time, they said, until they could
leave and start their own company.
I’m having another DIAMOND BULLET IN MY FOREHEAD moment. These guys were
making these little low budget, no money for this project, do me this favor
videos, while they are drawing salaries from T.W., in order to put together
a sample reel, that I am shooting for them for nothing, so that they can open
a production company in direct competition with me The Scooter
would give this one a thousand “HOLY COWS”. “But what the hell, these guys
have been good to me.”.
I shot Peter’s little video. What the hell else was I going to do. I
replaced Steve with another sound recordist. Steve, by this time was threatening
to sue me for stiffing him on the last video. I was still so angry
that I wouldn’t talk to him. Peter was now complaining about problems with
the footage. Major problems. It seems that the digital processing unit
was blanking more than usual during the transfer process. This had happened
before on both PRIDE AND PASSION and REDISCOVER AMERICA, but I had been
in the editing room to deal with it. Peter could not afford me in the edit
suite now and had instead listened to the editor at EPG, who tried to cover
his ass and gave bogus advice.
It’s not so easy, this small format stuff.
1993 begins. Horror after horror, until I sink so low that everything is
bottom. Dark, slow, hopeless, filthy, suicidal. Pick your own order of
My health is failing. I’m weak. Cold sweats in the night. Nausea. Diarhea.
Fever. A strange lump on my face that is diagnosed as ingrown facial hair.
My fear, of course, is AIDS. I’m tested. I’m negative. I realize that my
negative AIDS test is the first good news I’ve had in a year.
Blood test results: seems when I was in the middle east I caught Hepatitis,
and developed an antibody to it. Other than that, my illness remains a
mystery. Several projects on which I’m bidding disappear. I start looking
for an apartment. Peter calls.
Another little video. No talk of favors. No talk of no money for this
project. This is simply what he does now. That is; this is what he does
now, while he draws a salary from T.W., in order to put together a sample
reel, that I am shooting for him for nothing, so that he can open a production
company in direct competition with me. YIPES!
This time Peter does a lot of complaining about technical problems that
he’s experiencing lately with my footage. I try to go over his problems
one by one, but he wants to lump them together into one unforgivable pile
of misstakes and call it SLOPPINESS. Not only am I broke and dying, but now
I’m a slob. Hey, whatever turns you on. Of course, I fail to mention cheapness,
or you get what you pay for. Peter once made a video for a hundred
and fifty thousand dollars, and his director was a prince. Now he’s making
them for five, and if there are any technical problems, which invariably
there will be, then his director is a slob. Or am I even a director anymore?
All I know is I’m trying to stay alive, and maybe still try to create a
little magic along the way.
“O.K., when do we start?”
“Not so fast, you slob you, there’s a catch.”
Oh boy, just what I was waiting for. Chuck has sold Entertainment Weekly
Magazine on doing a cheap promotional video, somewhere in the $6500 range.
This budget is to include post production, even though Peter will do the
DANGER WILL ROBINSON
I agree to do it, but it smacks of bad deal. If post production costs,
over which I have no control, go overbudget, thenfunds will have to come
from production costs, from which I’m not making any money anyway.
“But what the hell, these guys have been good to me.”
I move out of the apartment I have shared with Inge for the last six years
into a studio on East 44th street. I suffer depression more intense than I
could ever hope to desribe.
My body goes berserk and throws a seizure, and I 911 to intensive care at
University Hospital. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
Out in four days, I shoot the E.W. video. Claudio is my new sound man.
He has bad breath, B.O., and no idea what he’s doing. But he works cheap.
Hey, at least he charges accordingly. After the third day of a five day
shoot Claudio wants to know why he hasn’t been paid yet. Poor Claudio.
Of course, no one seems to care that I have not been paid the advance
check as yet, even though we’ve shot three days already and production
cash has had to come out of my pocket. This has been the M.O. for the
last four videos. I don’t get the advance check until the production is
over. In other words I, a slob, have been financing Time Warner, the
largest media conglomerate on earth for the last year. Think about it.
But hey, Claudio wants his money. I enjoy hating Claudio.
The fever episodes are more frequent now. Hospital stays of usually three
days or so. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
I transfer the E.W. footage and there is a new glitch, something on the
bottom of the frame. Its intermittent. It’s a mystery. Slob stuff,
no doubt. I change cameras. It goes away. It comes back. I call Sony.
I call everybody. Lots of Doctors. Lots of guessing. No conclusions.
Back in the hospital. I’m poked full of holes. TESTSTESTSTESTS
Hospitals, I find out, are a lot like Claudio. They say, “PAY ME”. So I
do something I’ve never done before, I pay the hospital with money that’s
supposed to go to crew and venders. The big rollover. What the hell, if
I’m dead the crew’s not going to get paid anyway. It seemed logical at the
time. I’m now spending so much time sick that illness is becoming familiar.
PAY ME PAY ME
LOTS OF GUESSING
The wolves are at the door now, crew and vender wise, but I stall as best
I can. Peter has an expanded version of the E.W. video to shoot, and even
though he is now totally convinced of my slobdom, he’s got no choice but to
have me shoot it. The new E.W. footage has to be shot quickly, and I am now
on the edge of ambulatory. The daily shooting is a blur now. Hospital
treatments between shooting days. Keep shooting. Keep shooting. Try to
make some magic happen. DOCTORS DOCTORS PAY ME PAY ME.
I’m laying in a pool of fever sweat in the 44th Street apartment. Somehow ,
I’ve got to get it together enough to get to the West Village to cover a
photo shoot for a Puerto Rican comedian named John Leguizamo for E.W.
I do it with 103 degree fever. The footage is great. I get an odd satisfaction
from the fact that I can still make magic happen, even with a 103
The rest of the shooting has faded. The month after we wrap the E.W. is a
dark amalgam of hospital and apartment. Of darkness and stench and weakness
and crying and fever and hopelessness. All the while, in the distance, angry
venders on the phone and DOCTORS DOCTORS PAY ME PAY ME. I had been given
a check by E.W., which of course, I had given to the hospital. The shit will
hit the fan now. But at least there will be a fan.
In the midst of this chaos the lump in my right cheek, which has been diagnosed
by an esteemed dermatologist as ingrown facial hair, begins to rapidly
expand. Too weak from fever to get to the bathroom, I reach for the mirror
next to the bed and view this new chapter in my personal apocalypse.
Small black objects, the size of pencil dots, seemed* to appear through the
pores in the skin covering the lump. They appeared and disappeared again
and again, until I noticed slightly larger objects, that seemed to be moving,
on other parts of my face and arms. Then I felt the movement and the slight
sting, as the objects broke the skin. Tiny insects, which seemed able to
fly short distances, were coming through the skin covering the lump in my
face. I remember hearing the sobs before feeling the tears. All I could
do was cry. I thought I had lost ray mind. I wondered where Inge was.
While I waited for my friends from EMS, I thought about being a child
again. The delicious sensation of protection and nurturing and terry cloth.
FIX ME I’M BROKEN.
I remember looking up from the gurney at the face of the nurse in the E.R.
who was holding her hand over her mouth and gasping “Oh my god”. Ordinarily,
this would be an annoying reaction from a medical professional. But , in
this case, it actually made me feel better. Maybe this was really happening.
Maybe I wasn’t really nuts.
It took a long time to I.D. the bugs. Meanwhile the fever episodes continued.
Oddly, the Doctors do not connect the two. The Doctors seem to be pretending
that the bugs are happening to someone else. Doctors do not deal with bugs.
Doctors deal with fever. Doctors look down at you, with a concerned look
they must go to drama school to perfect, and say, “You seem to have You
seem to have You seem to have ” followed by PAY ME PAY ME.
“Do you think the bugs are connected to the fever?”, I innocently ask my
Physician/thespian/concerned guy. ”Hmmnmmmmm”, he responds, looking more
concerned than ever. Like he really gives a shit, “…what makes you
The tests come back BINGO DIAGNOSIS BUG-A-RAMA
My intestinal and respiratory systems have become a sort of Disneyworld for
Middle Eastern parasytes. It seems I had brought unwanted passengers back
with me from the trip to Egypt I had made with Peter and Steve for Time
Magazine. I had been so careful. Bottled water. Cooked food. No salads.
Maybe it was that Felafel I had eaten with the wife of the Time Bureau Chief
on my last day in Cairo.
My esteemed Physician/thespian/concerned guys swing into action. I’m
I.V.’d like a porcupine and pumped full of poison to eliminate these pesky
critters. It’s like the big round up. “Take em to Missouri, Matt.”
Back in the 44th St. apartment. The fever episodes are gone now. Of course,
the poison I’m full of, to kill my guests, is making me sick enough to
want to join them. The answering machine is filled with pleas and demands
from people I owe money to: venders, crew, Peter, Inge, DOCTORS DOCTORS
PAY ME PAY ME.
Weak and dazed from nasty combinations of Pharmaceuticals, I pick up the
phone. It’s Peter. A half hour harangue on the virtues of bill paying.
Of course, Peter has not noticed that I have not gone chapter eleven. I
could have used that option, but it’s not really my intention to stiff
anyone. Except maybe for Steve. I just have no money. Also, Peter’s
tirade is landing on a pretty battered psyche. Like the endless squadrons
of tiny Yassir Arafats, with wings and claws, that landed and took off from
the flight deck that was once my face.
It seems that my small army of disgruntled venders, unable to squeaze any
more money out of me, are now pestering Peter. Not to mention Claudio. “Peter
help me. He won’t pay me. What can I do?”. TRY BRUSHING YOUR TEETH YOU MAGGOT.
I love hating Claudio.
Peter suddenly segues from debt diatribe to concerned friend. It’s one
of his endearing qualities. As he’s asking about how I’m feeling, I realize
that he has no idea how sick I’ve been. I’m having another DIAMOND BULLET
IN THE FOREHEAD moment. No one really knows that I’ve been sick. I have
gone through this experience completely alone. My relationship with Inge
had been so fulfilling that any friends I had were now pretty distant.
Ther was only Inge and my work. Now both were gone, replaced by illness
and debt. What a world.
Peter seems genuinely concerned. Why do I love this guy? When Peter is in
his sincere, concerned friend mode he is irresistable. The E.W. edit is
finished to rave reviews and Peter is trying to find ways to creatively deal
with my outstanding debts. He still doesn’t understand why I don’t pay some
of them. This behavior amazes me. Did he think I had a trust fund? Did
he ever realize that I lost money on each of his low budget, no money for
this project, do me a favor, and oh by the way make some magic happen, you
slob you, videos? Did he think that Time Warner sent me a paycheck every
week, like the one they sent to him? Has he long since forgotten my DON’T
SHOOT SMA&L FORMAT VIDEO BECAUSE IT’S CHEAPER warnings? Does He really think
that he and Chuck share no resposibility for this mess, when all the while
they have been drawing salaries from T.W. in order to put together a sample
reel, that I have been shooting for nothing, so that they can open a production
company in direct competition with me?
GET REAL FELLAS!
So, now it’s 1994.
Late last summer I decided to be saved by my family. I took with me only
a small amount of light clothing, tee shirts and jeans mostly, and moved into
my sister’s house in East Hampton. I left the rest in the 44th street apartment.
I simply could not face that place again, and have no idea what happened
to the stuff I left there.
My health improved over the winter and other than some occasional wierd
stuff with my face I’m perfectly fine now. I had several phone conversations
with Inge about meeting, having lunch, talking, but she never returned the
call I made to her on her birthday. That was two months ago.
So, what is to be learned from this cautionary catharsis? I know that
telling this tale is the first time I’ve attempted to relive the events of
the last few years. I know that until I’ve done that, I can’t begin the
next faze of my life. Whatever the fuck that is.
So let’s look at the cast of characters.
Shaun, Inge, Peter, Chuck, Steve, even Claudio. Are they good guys?
Are they bad guys? I think that each of them is probably a little of
both. Each of them is probobly looking to gain an edge and avoid some
blame, just like everybody else. And maybe , along the way, try to make
a little magic happen.