In August of 1986, I was basking in the glow of three very successful and exciting film projects: First was the nomination of my then-associate Phillip Borsos’s documentary film, Nails, for an Academy Award; second was executive producing Till Death Do Us Part, a small feature film that received very favorable reviews in Variety, The Toronto Star, and from many of the critics in Canada and the United States. The highlight was executive producing The Grey Fox, an independent feature film starring the late Richard Farnsworth. Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios presented the film. United Artists Classics released it. The Grey Fox received worldwide critical acclaim and commercial success. It won seven Genies (Canadian Academy Awards) and was nominated for two Golden Globes for Best Foreign Picture and Best Actor for Richard Farnsworth. We were on a roll.
Buoyed by these successes, I began producing another feature film in The United States. While the cast and crew were incredible, the film lacked creative and critical cohesion. I accept responsibility for those deficiencies.
The catalyst that propelled me forward was created by the problems I was having with the financing of the film. The financing I was counting on and paid for never appeared in our bank account. We were the victims of commercial fraud. I ended up personally owing US$4 million, which was over Can$5 million at the time, and I believed in my heart of hearts that I was going to be able to pull off a miracle—just like I had so many times before—and pay everyone off.
I thought if I at least got the film finished, chances where I could recoup enough from it to achieve that goal. If I shut it down, there was zero chance of recovering anything, and my company and investors would be out over $1 million of our money. The Grey Fox had run out of money, so had Till Death Do Us Part. And we had recouped every cent, and then some.
Every night for almost three months, I would go up to my motel room, shut the door, and go into a state of shock from fear. There was no one I could talk to because everyone was counting on me to keep the picture going. Every morning, before I went downstairs to start another day of shooting, I went to the bathroom and throw up from fear.
I know from personal experience what it is like to lose everything, to face massive public criticism, and to face an economic recession—and in this case, a self-created financial depression. I survived them all and came away more prosperous, peaceful, and more purposeful than I’d ever been. I have learned how to make my life manageable, keep my word, and reclaim my life despite what appeared to be an impossible situation. In an odd way, at a micro level, my life emulated what is going on in the world today at a macro level. I had allowed greed, self-centeredness, and ego (edge good/God out) to take over my life.
At the time, I just thought I was doing what I had been told by my father would make me successful—and, I assumed, happy. Wrong again! I hate that, being wrong.
Here is what I believed and what I had been told in my childhood: make a lot of money, gain a lot of attention, acquire a beautiful home and an equally impressive car and a beautiful woman—flip the order in whichever way you want. I had all those things in spades. I had met a few wonderful women over a seven-year period, acquired a beautiful home on the Pacific Ocean in West Vancouver, shared a beach house in Malibu, and rented an apartment overlooking the East River in Manhattan and a beautiful townhouse in Toronto. I constantly moved between these four residences. Deep down, because of the violence of my childhood, I had no self-esteem. I didn’t want anyone getting too close to me. So, the lack of material resources was not my problem. My problem was recklessly borrowing money to keep up that wild lifestyle.
In addition to the US$4 million that I personally owed, I had approximately 605 lawsuits launched against me. It was not just the dark night of the soul; it had moved up to bleak, barren hopelessness, and I had nowhere to turn. There is no way to adequately describe the feelings I had at that time. As I previously mentioned, fear ran rampant. I couldn’t sleep at night. I was filled with an impending sense of doom and a real sense of despondency.
Then it dawned on me. I was either going to kill myself or crawl out of the hole I’d dug, which originally had functioned as my shelter in my childhood to survive living in an insane, alcoholic home. I had built an impenetrable wall around myself for self-protection; only now, as an adult, I couldn’t break through the barriers I had erected to protect myself to ask for the help I needed.
Because of that experience, I began to question every aspect of my life. Why did I live in a perpetual state of fear: fear of the future, fear of failure, fear of success, and fear of financial insecurity? When I had these overwhelming feelings, why did I insist on living out on the edge like I did? In my bravado, I used to say I had no fear of debt, but I was terrified of creditors.
I also wondered, despite all the success I’d had, why did I have such low self-esteem? I could never feel how others looked on the outside: confident, gregarious, and well-put together. Others saw me as a success, but I couldn’t. I felt like a fraud.
No matter how well I did, my mind would tell me I could have done it better. Why did I constantly blame others for my troubles? It was not the first time I had sabotaged myself.
The moment I accepted that I was out of money on the film and had no hope of any financial salvation, I knew my life as I’d led it was over. I also thought my career was over, too. The film wasn’t finished, and I was starting to think it never would be.
I didn’t follow the business advice that was suggested and declare bankruptcy. I felt if I did, I would never learn whatever it was I had to learn about managing my finances and my life. Nor would I get to the cause of why my life was out of control, financially and emotionally. If I didn’t take a stand and confront myself about why I’d acted and behaved the way I had, chances were I would find myself right back in the same position again. In this case, once was enough, and I’m grateful to say it was and has been.
Finding the answers to why my life was so unmanageable has been a long, slow process that is still underway today. I was incredibly depressed and wondered if I would ever be able to start overcoming any of the difficulties I was facing. I owed so much money; I didn’t know where to start. Finally, after four years of very intense personal work, I began sending out payments of $5 to various individuals whom I owed thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to. In the past, it had always just been empty talk and empty promises. At least with $5 (though admittedly a drop in the bucket), it was a real, concrete action and showed my good intentions. One lawyer in New York said I restored his faith in humanity. In the last few years, the payments have risen significantly, but with so many people I also had to prioritize my creditors. There is a whole group I’ve never even begun to repay. I was told to take care of first the people who had stood by me through the difficult years. This is where I still am today. I could sell off individual assets I owned such as screenplays, video rights, and revenues from the film to reduce the production debt to a more manageable level. I have never personally realized another penny from the film.
It was a horrific, humiliating experience for me. I have never felt so much pain, except for my childhood, from that experience of failure. But out of pain comes growth—tremendous growth. I couldn’t see it then, but in retrospect, the film gave me my life back. No one could have told me that at the time, however.
Perhaps you haven’t lost millions of dollars, but you might have lost your job or your company because of the recent economic downturn and the current political uncertainty currently swirling around North America. Maybe you lost your home during the housing crisis between 2007 and 2009 as many thousands of people did. Perhaps you are on the verge of losing your house or your car right now. Maybe you’re struggling with a substance abuse issue. Or, you might be facing bankruptcy, or your husband or wife or partner may be walking out on you because you have difficulty forming and sustaining a long-term relationship.
I know that I experienced many of these feelings and emotions and have had the same questions racing through my mind at various times. Today, I feel as if my life has been utterly changed. It doesn’t mean I still don’t feel angry and resentful from time to time or that I don’t have bad days. But I am no longer as powerless over my emotions and my fears as I once was. I am no longer run by my thoughts about the future all the time. I do have peace of mind a great deal of the time. I also have a life I could never have dreamt possible in the past.
I was married for nearly twenty years, and when my wife and I split, the divorce was done with love and compassion on both sides. I have regained the love of my son from my first marriage and reconciled with my oldest daughter and her family. I have found the ability to forgive myself for my past mistakes. I have been able to set right most those relations in my past where I hurt others—especially my family and friends. I have done the work to heal my childhood trauma, and reclaim my life.
I am happy 80 percent of the time. I also have a mind that, when I’m in the 20 percent downturn, tells me I will always feel that way. My mind lies to me. That’s why today when my mind starts to chatter about all the horrible things that are going on in the world, I just thank it for sharing.
David Brady has 30 years of experience as an award-winning writer, producer and director of feature film and international television productions. In June, 2015 he founded David Brady Communications and changed his focus on writing nonfiction books.