When I was 21 and under the influence of books like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and Larry McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, I started writing a wildly autobiographical piece of fiction about my experiences upon arriving in New York. I wanted to write about trying to “make it” as an actor and centered the story on a soul-crushing, identity-defining encounter with first love.

It’s 15 years later and I am still trying to tell that same story by adapting my novel, The Hottest State, into a film. Sometimes I find that fact kind of embarrassing, as though a “real writer” would have moved on to a more adult theme—or at least expanded on a vision of love in some substantive way. But as the years have gone by I’ve often wondered if I published this story too young. Had I even understood what I was writing about?

With two kids of my own and a divorce behind me, I can now look back and see all the same actions and behaviors of my young adulthood with a new understanding of my unconscious motivations—particularly with regard to my romantic entanglements. It was as if all my love affairs had been attempts at reinterpreting childhood definitions of “love” as shaped by my relationships with my mom and dad.

I began seriously reconsidering the novel after my son was born. My father came to visit and we spent a fantastic afternoon watching the Super Bowl. Maybe it was a new child, maybe it was just that enough time had passed; but in some new way there was an ease to our conversations that had never existed before. Neither of us did anything different or spoke any magic words. But somehow a cloud of anger that in the past had distorted all my perceptions of my father had mysteriously lifted.

In hindsight, I think being a father allowed me to be viscerally cognizant of how deeply my dad loved me. Back when I was 21 I didn’t know that, even with great love, things could go painfully wrong.

Almost as soon as I was aware of this absence of confusion and resentment, I was bothered by this nagging thought that I had chickened out by not ending my novel in an honest way. By skirting around the hero’s anger I had robbed his story of any possibility of real healing or forgiveness. The Hottest State wasn’t about getting my heart broken, as I had previously thought. It was about how, for those of us unable to shake childhood wounds, a broken heart can be healing, like re-breaking a bone to set it straight.

Then, in one night, with my infant son asleep on the couch next to me, I wrote a new chapter for a 10-year-old novel: A father-son reconciliation. I had no idea what to do with these fresh pages but started thinking about them as a closing scene in a film adaptation. Turning the novel into a film would be a way to revise the story using a new medium. Hopefully this time the story would be more true.

This was, of course, easier said than done. One of the many things I didn’t anticipate was the mini-crisis I would have over who would play the father, in this new (and hopefully climactic) scene. Vincent D’Onofrio was on a television show, Kiefer Sutherland the same. Kevin Bacon politely declined, as did Matt Dillon. Viggo Mortensen wanted to spend time with his son. One of my best and oldest friends, Josh Hamilton, declined as he was filming in India.

Eventually it dawned on me that I was now old enough to play the father myself—plus I was cheap and available. So on the last day of shooting I backed into the role. The three hours it took to shoot the seven-page scene required everything I have learned in the last 20 years about the performing arts and life. I’m not saying it’s a great scene or even a good scene, because I have no objective idea. But it is everything I know rolled into six minutes of celluloid.

Maybe when I am 67 I will understand these same characters and their motivations in some strange, unforeseeable way and write The Hottest State: The Opera. But for now, I think I am done. MM