A Letter to My 14-Year-Old Self

Lauren Wolkstein, director of the forthcoming The Strange Ones, sends some words of advice and comfort back through time.

Dear young and confused:

Cinema will save your life. Mark my words. You may not be able to believe this right now, but in a couple years, at the ripe old age of 16, you will be coding for the Department of Defense at an elite government agency with a top-secret clearance, and even though you will experience many traumatic events while you work there as the only female coder and only teenager in the room, don’t worry, because you won’t stay in the job more than two years. Your father, a decorated war veteran and your hero, will be deployed many times overseas and still won’t have a high enough clearance to know the secrets that you will know as a teenager. This may seem ridiculous … because it is ridiculous. But whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to blow any whistles – a young man by the name of Snowden will do this for you a decade after you leave. All you need to know is that you should get out as soon as you can and create things. Make things. Express yourself. You weren’t built to sit behind a computer all hours of the day on little to no sleep, and you weren’t built to keep secrets. You were built to connect with other humans through stories, through filmmaking. And you will, but it will take time, so be patient. You will get help from your role models, some of them right in front of you.

John Waters will save your life on more than one occasion, and he is right in your own backyard of Bawlmer, hon. Your parents will say he is weird and strange, but that will only entice you to watch everything he’s ever made in order to rebel against them. Watch as many of his films as you can. When you watch Cry-Baby for the first time, you will realize that the Enchanted Forest is literally down the street from your cozy house in the middle of the woods. You will feel trapped in these woods, without an outlet, but John Waters will give you that outlet, and that ounce of hope. He is strange like you. He comes from the same place as you and sheds light on all that is absurd and amusing in this world. He isn’t afraid, and you shouldn’t be either. He is a kindred spirit, pushing form and finding new ways to tell taboo stories. He is able to make light of life in a way that is refreshing and exciting and reminds you that your sense of humor is validated. And that is important. You can’t live your life without a sense of humor – it’s just too hard, my friend. Try not to puke in your mouth when you finally meet him for the first time when you are in your thirties and make your first feature film with your creative partner, Chris. (Yes, it will take you until you are in your thirties to make your first feature, but it’s OK, it isn’t a race.) To your shock, John Waters will like your film and you will nearly faint. Don’t faint. He’s only human like you.

Swedish cinema will be a shining beacon of light for you, especially Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål. You will discover this film later in high school and wonder why it didn’t exist earlier. You come from a small town like Åmål and you want to get the fuck out of there; it is almost like the title is calling your name and saying Fucking Ellicott City. You love your hometown but there really isn’t anything to do there, especially now the Enchanted Forest, that weird theme park that was featured in Cry-Baby, has been replaced by a grocery store and strip-mall. Fucking Åmål is the queer coming-out story that actually, for once, has a beautiful ending. The two girls don’t end up committing suicide or leaving each other bitter and alone, like most lesbian tales of the time. The popular girl ends up becoming the shy queer girl’s girlfriend and comes out in front of the whole school before that was even fashionable. This will be the first time that you’ll see a character like you in a film – Agnes is a shy teen who feels alienated from the popular kids and finds solace in Morrissey’s lyrics. Sound familiar? You will watch this movie religiously every weekend, pining for other girls like this to exist in your high school. They won’t. But, that’s why you have movies. To know you aren’t alone, though it may seem that way.

Feeling scarred by your experience working for the government, you will distance yourself from computer science and you will pick up a camera. This will be your outlet. During your college years in a sleepy town in North Carolina, you will discover David Lynch. You will never see the world the same again. Blue Velvet, which was shot in North Carolina, will open your eyes to the possibility of creating new worlds within seemingly banal ones. He will make you realize that nothing is ever that shiny on the surface and that there are dark things lurking underneath every rose and every white picket fence. You will discover dreamscapes and soundscapes and landscapes within Lynch’s universe. Jeffrey Beaumont is you; he’s curious and innocent, playing detective in his weird small town. You’ve always wanted to play detective and solve puzzles. You will try to do that as a computer programmer, but it’s filmmaking that will allow you to uncover mysteries and unlock worlds.

When you graduate college with a computer science degree, you’ll still burn with the desire to make films. You’ll do your homework: Where did other filmmakers that you like go to school? Kimberly Peirce, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko and Kathryn Bigelow – amazing fierce female storytellers who are also badass ladies, carving the way for other women – all went to Columbia University for their MFA in Screenwriting and Directing. So you’ll apply there so you too can tell personal stories. You’ll set out to tell the one about working at that top-secret government agency as a teenager, because again, that was crazy. Amazing mentors and professors will help shape your voice and help dig the story out of you. You will write a feature screenplay and co-write an episodic series bible inspired by this life experience. But you’re not quite ready to tell that story, and you won’t be for a while. In the meantime, collaborations will set you free. You will make friends and find connection and a common language. You will tell other stories with those people, stories that are also deeply personal to you and all related to your life experience in other ways. You will find your place in the world through the art of cinema.

One more thing: slow down. Life comes at you fast, so start watching Tarkovsky films before you get to be my age. You may not appreciate them now, but they will be your Xanax before you know it. When you move to New York City from Baltimore and North Carolina, everyone will be in a rush to go to the next thing, and the hustle and bustle of the city will seem overwhelming at times. That’s OK. You can handle it. Go to the Quad, Metrograph, BAM, Museum of Moving Image, MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center – and see a Tarkovsky movie. You will become immersed in a new world, and your heart rate will slow down to a normal pace. You will be discovering time in a way that feels relaxing and transfixing. You don’t know this now, but watching films in a cinema will be the start of your meditation practice. This will be important for you in the years to come, so start early and practice often.

So … go to the cinema to get your fix. It’s an essential daily vitamin. Now, get out from behind that computer screen, get out into the world, connect with other people, and make stuff.

Sincerely yours,
A strange little bird from the future


The image of young Lauren Wolkstein is courtesy of the author; the image of Lauren Wolkstein on the set of The Strange Ones is by Seth Lind.

Lauren Wolkstein is a NYC-based filmmaker originally from Baltimore, Maryland. Her award-winning short films include Social Butterfly (2013 Sundance Film Festival), Cigarette Candy (2010 SXSW Grand Jury Prize) and The Strange Ones co-directed with Christopher Radcliff (2011 Sundance Film Festival). Lauren and Christopher adapted The Strange Ones into their first feature film of the same name, starring James Freedson-Jackson and Alex Pettyfer; it world premiered to critical acclaim at the SXSW Film Festival in 2017 and will be released theatrically in January 2018. Lauren also recently completed Collective:Unconscious, a collaborative feature spearheaded by Dan Schoenbrun (with directors Josephine Decker, Lily Baldwin, Daniel Carbone, and Frances Bodomo), which was the first omnibus to premiere in the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW in 2016. Lauren received her MFA in film directing from Columbia University and is an assistant professor of Film and Media Arts at Temple University. (Photo by Shah Zaman Baloch)