Take My Advice, Don’t Take My Advice

Here’s a recent email exchange I had with Andy Bowley, one of the fine, fine cinematographers who worked on A Life’s Work. How we arrived at this point in our back and forth doesn’t matter. What matters is the content of this excerpt, which I think fits in nicely with the theme of the film and the blog.
Andy Bowley
Where’s in the World is Andy Bowley? Among the Allen Telescope Array.

when i was in high school, i was encouraged to write a letter to a fellow who was doing a lot of work in computer graphics/filmmaking. i was interested in this field, so i wrote him a dorky letter asking him many questions, among them: which should i study if i am interested in both filmmaking or computers? a few months later a letter came back from the guy.  in a dense and beautiful hand, he wrote that it was a miracle that my letter was delivered at all, as it was addressed to his loft space, where he never received mail. he gave me great advice, telling me that when it came to pursuing computers vs. art, he suspected that the choice would be “made for me” — and in closing, he advised me never to take anyone’s advice too seriously. anyway, i was so happy that a new york guy had taken such obvious effort to craft such a thoughtful reply to a high school worm like me.

i have always remembered his name. it was carter burwell. who, i was delighted to learn many years later, had quit the computer graphics/academics racket altogether to become one of the most successful film composers in hollywood history.

a nice guy triumphs.

i like that.

I asked Andy’s permission to use this email and because he’s a very nice guy, he graciously agreed. He also added:

i should mention it was his father charles burwell, a teacher at my high school with a similarly generous sprirt, who put me in touch with carter.

And then I asked if he still had the letter.

i believe the burwell letter has gone the way of the dumpster. you’ve heard of pack rats? i am the opposite-animal, whatever that may be.

i do get a twinge of regret when i throw stuff like that away, but then it’s rare that i ever think about it or need it again.  and then and there i have gained another cubic foot of free space  such are the inner machinations of a man who lived on a boat for 10 years.

The moral of the story? Write to people you don’t know and ask their advice, and if you’re the person written to, respond thoughtfully and seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Here’s some Burwell music for you, from the end credits of No Country for Old Men, a film made by his most famous collaborators, The Coen Brothers.


For more on the cinematographers who have worked on A Life’s Work, click here.

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]