"I have a big dream list that now has over 200 items. I hadn't looked at in five years, until very recently. When I looked at it, I discovered that about forty things on that list I'd done... without even realizing it."
Daniel Scherl
Photos by The Headshot Truck

Daniel Scherl is a director, actor, writer and musician in Los Angeles.

He is also an entrepreneur and President / CEO of his own long-standing corporation, Daniel Scherl Productions.

Daniel holds a BFA in Creative Writing from The State University of New York at Buffalo where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and earned triple national honors, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Eta Sigma and Golden Key.

In addition to being an accomplished director and writer, he is an veteran musician who plays multiple instruments and has five albums of music recorded, a professional photographer whose work has been sought after internationally, a producer, editor, audio engineer, graphic designer, computer tech and nationally published editorialist and humor columnist.

He also loves Golden Retrievers and a really cold glass of water.

The Conversation

What is your creative ambition?

I’m driven by something that I don’t know how to define, and I’m not 100% sure that there are words to define it. I feel an instinct – that’s what I’m going to call it – to express myself through the creative arts and I don’t know if it’s for any singular purpose except that I believe creativity needs to be heard in the world.

I think humanity wants to express itself, and I think people who are creative feel something they can’t deny. If they’re honest with themselves, I don’t think they’d be able to live happily without expressing it.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist, and can you talk about that time in your life?

Two very distinct memories come to mind:

One of them was being in nature when I was a little boy. My dad and I were in Indian Guides – sort of like boy scouts but cooler. They teach you about Native American spirituality, and you build teepees and canoes. It’s really fun.

Daniel Scherl Photographt
Photo by Daniel Scherl

Ever since I was a kid I had this profound connection to nature. I still do. It’s kind of my religion. In nature I’d see all these incredible things, like the structure of veins in the leaves of maple trees, and as child the grandeur of life really struck me — or as people today like to say: the interconnectedness of it all. That feeling still drives me today in almost everything I do.

The second memory is from a July 4th barbecue when I was 11 or 12. The family who was hosting the event had an organ in their living room – it had two tiers of keyboards and foot pedals.

I was somewhat anti-social as a child, and really liked to be by myself – which is funny because now I’m a huge social butterfly. The adults were, in my eyes, being boring and talking about things that I didn’t understand, so I decided to sit down and play on those organ keyboards.

I was really into Science Fiction, so I started imagining that the sounds the organ made were the engines of a space ship coming through the atmosphere. I heard this music in my head – the cinematic sound of spaceship lights strobing, etc. – and I started playing that music. For about a half hour I’m totally in my head doing this, and I end up playing this whole song. When I was done, I turned to look behind me… and my entire family and their friends were gathered in the living room listening to and watching me. They were all quite surprised that I was actually playing music.

My dad walks over to me, and he says: “I want you to play this.” He asks me to repeat what he’s playing [the intro to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue]… and I do. It turns out that I had a gift for hearing music. I could generally play what I heard (now, if I hear a song on the radio, I can pretty quickly figure out the chords and just play the song).

So, my dad looks at my mom and says “we’re getting him a piano.” A few months later there was a piano in the house, and I started playing and composing.

To this day, I still can’t read treble clef… but I’ve been a composer since I was 13 years old. I have five albums out that I did back in the day, and when I first came to L.A. it was to score music for film and television. That changed, and I’ve ended up becoming a director. I don’t talk about it a lot because I don’t do it much these days, but my dream is to write, direct and produce my own film, have a role in it, and do the sound track.

I’ve noticed in my own life that I sometimes feel guilty about those things I do fairly naturally, but might be harder for others. Do you have any experience with that feeling?

Oh yeah. I’ve carried a tremendous amount of guilt my whole life for that. Jolene and I were just talking about this last night.

If I give you two numbers to add in your head, I want you to tell me immediately what your brain does and how you add them. Are you ready?

Okay

35 plus 29.

So, I’m putting them on top of each other and then trying to do the math that I learned to do on paper as a kid… and I’m getting anxiety.

[Laughs]. What I do, is I put the two numbers in space, and I think: well 29 is so close to 30, and a 0 number is easier to add. So I take 1 away from 35 to make 34, and then the equation becomes 30 + 34, which is easy. Jolene doesn’t do it that way either.

© 2015 Daniel Scherl Productions
Checking a shot on set with Bruce Boxleitner. Photo by Daniel Nemes.

It’s phenomenal to me how different our individual minds are. With that in mind, I felt guilty for years. I would ace tests in school and never study. I just picked up information really easily. But I also grew up insecure because I was really fat as a kid. I’m culturally Jewish, and I grew up in an area of Ohio where there wasn’t a lot of Jewish people. It was a very white-washed area, and I got made fun of a lot growing up – “You fat fucking Jew,” etc.

It was a weird combination. I had all these talents, but my parents were always telling me to be humble. “You’re no different” they’d say. “Every human is the same… they’re just assholes.”

When I finally got older – I’m 44 – and crossed into my late 30’s/early 40’s (and I don’t mean this to sound arrogant), but I just stopped giving a crap what anyone else thought. I wish I had done that a looooong time ago [Laughs].

Nowadays, I don’t feel guilty, but I do believe people with creative gifts were given them to make the world better and they should do just that. Whether God or Buddha or biochemistry gave me these gifts, I should be proud of them. As artists I think we have a responsibility – especially today when the arts are so in danger – to push art forward, lead by example, and bring art and positivity to the world.

I’m going to ask you about 4 different experiences, and I want you to try and share what those experiences feel like in your body.
The first experience is fear. 
What does fear feel like to you?

I have a very physical reaction to fear. I start to feel my heart rate increase quite rapidly. I feel very tense and tight.

There’s two types of fear. There’s: “Is this person going to attack me?” And then there’s: “Are people going to laugh at me when I put this out there?”

Daniel Scherl
On location with a 600 mm lens! Photo by Jessica Kinney.

Over the last six months to a year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about fear, and trying to get rid of as much of it as possible to get to a place where… Actually, I should say that I’m a big proponent of truth. Especially in L.A., there’s a lot of dishonesty and disingenuous people. I try to be a bit of a champion for telling people the truth, even if it hurts them, and I’ve been really ridiculed for that quality in my life until very recently.

Early in my relationship, Jolene would ask me not to be so blunt with her friends and I’d be like “Okay… but they asked the question, and that was my answer.” She explained — and I didn’t get it before, but I get it now — that there’s a nice way to say things, and there’s an asshole way. I try not to be an asshole.

Only problem with that is that when you’re impatient because of financial stress, life stress, family stress, etc. and you’re getting older in life, you tend to lose a little tact and want people to just get their shit together.

So anyway, with the whole fear thing… I’m trying to reach a place where I don’t let fear prevent me from doing anything anymore. I’ve tried to turn it around, and psychologically convert it into energy that continues pushing me forward. It’s hard. It’s very hard. To quote Baz Luhrmann’s song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” which is originally from a 1997 Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich, “If you figure out how to do it, let me know.”

What are some of the things that you’re most annoyed to be getting that fear response from?

That I’m going to do something stupid as a guy and piss off my girlfriend. Even after nine years and everything we’ve been through, I’m still afraid that I could do something dumb and lose her. I mean I’m going to do something dumb, I’d just like to keep to “humorous dumb,” not “I’m outta here dumb.”

Lastly, losing Jolene and dying scare me. We’ve finally decorated our home nicely, so… [laughs]. She’s my lobster. And I’m finally getting happy in my life and at a place where cool shit is happening, and I don’t want any of it to end yet, and not for a long, long, long time.

The next experience is a success that you weren’t expecting.
What does that feel like to you?

Let me think about that… I have one. Okay, it felt – honestly — like I was in a simulation and like what I was experiencing wasn’t real. I couldn’t believe it was happening.

A simulation?

Like the matrix. Like I was living in the matrix and someone had pre-programmed this moment, and I was almost afraid that I was going to wake up and they were going to be like “oh just kidding, that didn’t really happen.”

Photo by Jolene Kay
Directing on set. Photo by Jolene Kay.

Where did you experience that in your body?

I kind of felt it in my chest. I remember my heart beating and my temperature changing. I felt like I was probably flush in the face, and meanwhile I was just trying to maintain my cool… but I felt like a giddy school boy.

The next experience is anger.
What does anger feel like to you?

I hate anger because I’ve had too much of it in my life. It’s physically and mentally draining. It feels similar to fear, in that my body will tighten up. It also feels like my body is preparing for war. Anger physically feels like armour being slammed together around my body, like when Iron Man’s suit shoots through the air onto his body, and I start listing all the weaponry I have in my arsenal for this particular situation.

I think I have a gift with words, which is both a blessing and a curse. I have the ability to find the words to make someone laugh or cry. Words are very powerful, so when you have that kind of gift and understanding of the human experience, you have a tremendous responsibility to use those words wisely, and not be careless with them. To repeat something from earlier in the interview… don’t be an asshole.

The next experience is love.
What does love feel like to you?

This sounds so cheesy but when I feel what I consider to be true love – whether that’s towards Jolene, a pet, a song, or an incredible piece of food that I’m tasting – I honestly feel like I leave my body, and I go back and become one with whatever makes up the fabric of the universe. I get to touch, for a moment, what I consider to be God. And if I were to define God, I would define Him or Her as the energy in all living things that connects us all together, and that is at its nature very loving.

in France
Daniel and Jolene in France

What is your greatest failure, or something that led to your greatest shift in consciousness and made you who you are today?

I was working at a job many years ago in Boston with a friend, and I said to him

“Hey, do you think I’ve failed?”

The room got quiet for a second, and then he turned to me and said,

“No, but I’ve seen you think that you have.”

I started crying, and from that moment on in my life I realized I haven’t actually failed… I’ve just made mistakes. There’s a real big difference.

There’s this great quote from “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Yep.

I don’t think I’ve ever failed at anything. I think I’ve only made mistakes. Some big ones, sure. But when I make mistakes, I own up to them. I apologize, try and make amends, take the lesson, and move on. I’m very proud of that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve pissed off my girlfriend, I’ve sent mean letters to my brothers or sisters, I’ve yelled at somebody on set before (who totally deserved it by the way), I’ve made mistakes and I fuck shit up now and then, but I don’t think I’ve ever failed. Failure is a powerful word.

So, what was one of your biggest mistakes?

I don’t want to get specific, but I did something stupid once and hurt a friend. When I realized what I had done, it made me come to terms with how easy it is for human beings to hurt each other – often unintentionally. When they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I think what they really mean is that people can have really good intentions and still do stupid stuff. See previous Steinbeck quote. [Laughs].

I was fortunate that my friend and I were very close. We talked about what happened and our friendship became tenfold stronger because of it. But the realization that I could do bad things – when I always thought I was a good person who didn’t do bad things – really got to me. I thought I was the kind of guy who didn’t make any of the mistakes on any big list. I was the good kid. When I made a mistake on that list I realized “Oh shit. I’m no different than anybody else.” That sounds arrogant, but it was a big revelation for me.

I spent several months depressed about the whole thing, and then I really did shift.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as a species to meet certain criteria and behave a certain way at all times. I decided to stop drowning in self pity and lift myself up. I turned the lesson around to be powerful.

What is your greatest strength as an artist?

My greatest strength is that I believe.

The other half of that question, can you share a personal challenge?

My greatest challenge is coming to terms with the fear that I may have wasted too much time.

The longer version is that I just turned 44. Since I was about 14 or 15, I was either trying to get into girl’s pants, or trying to be creative. I wasn’t very successful – well… on the pants endeavor I was a bit [laughs].

I was so in search of girls that I let that pursuit distract me from my path. As my dad would say, “I don’t own the patent on that.” I think that’s very human. But… I kind of always wanted to find a life partner more than I wanted a career. When I finally let that go and decided to just live, a month later Jolene walked into my life.

I always worked for other people, thinking that those goals would lead to success. I produced for a lot of musicians; I recorded a lot of people; signed on some talent and managed them. I produced projects. I kept doing work for others. I credit Jolene as the person who finally said: “You have so much talent and so many things that you can do really well, why are you not doing for yourself?”

I was always afraid to just do for me, but I finally did. Two years ago. Now, it’s difficult to not look backwards and think ‘Fuck… What could have happened if I’d started this twenty years ago?” I don’t recommend waiting that long. [Laughs hard].

On location in Los Angeles. Photo by Jolene Kay.

I’m a little scared that I’m going to die before I see my stuff come to fruition. I’m scared that won’t be successful that way I want to be, and not successful the way that I want to be. I don’t want it to be too late. I know now that I’m not at war with anybody but myself and I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done, but I’ve done nothing that is on the level of human shift that I want to do.

It’s not about the financial success. It’s about feeling like I’ve given something amazing to the world. Something I can sit back, look at, smile and nod my head and say… “Yes.”

In what way do you feel like humanity is stagnant? In what way do you want to help?

People don’t believe anymore. And I’m not talking about religion.

I’m very disappointed – about the state of entertainment today. It’s all apocalyptic, horror, and the world is going to end. Everything is terrible, dark, bleak and weak. There’s no hope.

I grew up in the midst of the cold war. I had to do bomb drills in school. It was scary. But even amidst all that fear, our media in the 80’s was mostly fun and inspirational and even silly, but a lot of it had a message that ’you can dream big and do big things.’

Today, the level of song lyrics is just atrocious. They say that the average reading level of song lyrics today is third grade. So it’s just… I look at some of these artists and I just want to put them in a room and say:

“Hey, what the fuck is wrong with you? You are reaching 400 million people a day, and all you can think about is this stupid shit? Why don’t you say something worth while?”

And that goes into a whole political discussion about how politicians in America want to distract Americans from what’s really happening. I don’t really want to get on that but… our government wants a very dumb and subservient America so that the rich can continue being rich and the working can continue to be enslaved, and the middle class disappears. That’s what has happened in this Country in the last forty years, and that’s what people like Bernie Sanders are allegedly trying to change. They’re trying to bring back the middle class and bring back the arts.

I’m not trying to pretend like there aren’t problems. There are huge problems in the world. But hey, the world isn’t going to end tomorrow, and we can fix this shit if we all band together. Human beings are fucking amazing when they unite for a good cause.

If I can facilitate that through art, it would be really wonderful.

I personally believe in magic. I grew up believing in faeries and something that was up there, or around here, protecting me in a real way. What do you believe?

I’ve had two particular experiences that convinced me that there was something greater out there.

Can you share one?

Have you ever seen those chocolate coins that are wrapped in the gold wrapper? They usually come in little mesh bags.

Yes.

Jewish people call them gelt coins (gelt means money), and they usually get taped onto presents for Channukah.

I was pretty young when my great grandfather died (my mom’s grandfather), but I remember he used to walk up to me whenever I’d see him, put a quarter in my hand, and say, “Ah, my little gelt boy. Someday you’re going to be really wealthy.”

He passed away when I was young. Whenever I go back to Ohio I always go to the cemetery and pay my respects to my mother’s and father’s family. I take flowers with me, put them down and talk to my relatives for a few minutes. I say hello, and tell them how I’m doing.

When I was twenty-six, I think, I was home visiting and decided to go to the cemetery. It was icy cold, cloudy, and the snow was wet and heavy. I’m walking to where my great grandparents are, but I don’t want to kneel down because the snow is wet. So I squat. I say hi to my great grandmother first, and then bury the stem of the carnation under the snow so it won’t blow away in the wind. And then I turn to my great grandfather. I say, “Hey Papa, it’s gelt boy.”

I was going through a bit of a tough time with who I was at that point, and I started to get a little choked up. When I was done talking to him, I peeled back the snow with my hand to bury the stem of another flower, and there, underneath the snow, was a gelt coin wrapper. Like an actual chocolate gelt coin wrapper – without the chocolate, just the coin. I was really freaked out to be honest.

I slowly reached for the coin, and when I had it in my fingers, and I’m not shitting you, the clouds opened up and this beam of sunlight comes right out onto the cemetery for just a few seconds. Then the clouds closed up again.

I just looked up – and I have a pretty sarcastic sense of humour – and I said “Okay? So, this is a sign!?”

I still have that gelt coin.

There was too much coincidence. Could one of my family members have gone out one day and put it there? Sure. But between the coin and the clouds parting it just made me believe that there was something beyond this world, and that my great grandfather was trying to let me know that it was all going to be okay.

That, or he was trying to say what I mentioned above, which is… “Don’t be an asshole.”

I don’t believe in religion (because that’s a man made construct) but I do believe in the interconnectedness of all life, and I believe that human beings are essentially awesome.

So yeah… my religion is ‘the Force.’ Pre-Midi-chlorian force to be precise. [Laughs]. Nerds everywhere will laugh.

Are you happy, and what does happiness mean to you?

I’m happy most of the time. I don’t think you can always be happy. But I do think that happiness is a choice. Most of the time I pursue a life where I endeavour to be happy as often as possible.

I’m going to share this with you, because I think you should do this.

Daniel Scherl in Paris
On location in Paris. Photo by Jolene Kay.

This last year has been a big year for me emotionally. I recently asked myself to try and find a way to be happier – because I was feeling miserable in L.A. a lot of the time. So I asked myself: What do you really want? What makes you happy?

I remembered that there was this era in my life, when I was in about 6th or 7th grade, when I was REALLY really happy all the time. I thought back to that time. What was I doing? Besides the fact that rent and food were being taken care of by mom and dad, what was it that made me happy? And then I literally started listing out every single thing that I did to be happy back then. I played Dungeons and Dragons with my friends after school, I read comics and books, I ate good food, I went for walks in the woods, the list goes on.

I looked at this list, and I realized – no joke – I realized – that every single thing that made me happy when I was a little kid… I wasn’t doing as an adult.

So, I went out and I bought an iPad and I got lots of my favourite books and comic books. I joined a softball team. I started doing all the things that I loved doing as a kid, and now I’m the happiest that I’ve ever been in years.

I used to work so many days and so many hours desperately seeking the dollar. Now, I have less money… and I’m so much happier. Now the hope is that I can combine those two worlds, and be wealthy AND really happy.

To answer your question… yeah, in general most of the time I am happy, and that’s because I’ve worked REALLY hard to create a life where that’s possible.

Where in the world can you breathe the deepest?

In the wilderness. In nature.

Is there a specific place in nature?

My all time favourite place to be is inside of really, really green woods where there’s a lot of animal life, and running water – maybe a little creek. It’s quiet and peaceful, and you just hear the crunch of the leaves beneath your feet. I’d like to build a home there some day.

How do you dream?

I have a journal where I keep track of what I need to do that’s important, and then I cross it off.

Henriette Klauser wrote this book called ‘Write it Down. Make it Happen.’ I firmly believe in that.

As often as I can, I sit down in bed and I update my journal. I think that if you don’t physically take pen to paper and write it down, you won’t get as much accomplished. I’ve put this belief to the test, and it held true. There’s just this connection that happens when you write something you want down, and make it tangible in the world.

I have my short term tasks – do my laundry, edit this thing for my client – and then on the other side of the journal I have my dream list. It has things like: direct a multi million dollar feature film, build a house.

I started keeping this list in the year 2000. I have a big dream list that now has over 200 items on it which I hadn’t looked at in five years, until very recently. When I looked at it, I discovered that about forty things on that list I’d done… without even realizing it.

If you were to write a letter to a younger self, what is the hook that you’d start that letter with to ensure that you read to the end?

I would open it by telling the younger me about something from my past that no one knows. If my younger self read that, he would know it was legit and read the whole letter.

Daniel Scherl
On location in Los Angeles. Photo by Jolene Kay.

Now that you’ve gotten your younger self’s attention, what are some of the key things that you would want to tell them?

I would want to tell myself not to be so insecure. I would tell myself to not be afraid to focus on me. There’s no shame in that. Believe in yourself. Get your ass out to California and start earlier… but don’t forget about this girl from Missouri that’s going to show up [Smiles].

Be okay with all the facets of your life from food to sex to religion to conversation. Be easier on yourself. Be nice to people. And honestly, I would tell myself: “Save your money.” Work hard and save as much as you can so that you can invest and earn interest and not be poor, because you’re going to be poor for a lot of years if you don’t.

I would also probably tell myself to enjoy certain relatives that were going to pass away.

But also, there’s the theory that if I went back and told myself any of these things, I might not be here today and I wouldn’t want to change anything, because I like who I am.

What does the child in you believe about the world?

That essentially all of humanity is good, and that life is great. Not only are we all connected but, to quote Carl Sagan, “We’re all star stuff.”

Who are you? What is your identity?

Who am I? I am an entity who believes that he is part of some greater cosmic presence or being or oneness. I am driven by a desire to one day reconnect to that consciousness – a time which I would consider coming home. And until then… I create and I enjoy the ride as much as possible.


What books have had the greatest impact on your life?

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Changewinds Trilogy by Jack Chalker

And the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series.

Connect with Daniel

© 2013 Daniel Scherl
Photo by Marti Matulis

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Website: www.danielscherl.com


 

 

 

 

 


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“There’s this connection that happens when you write something you want down, and make it tangible in the world” – a conversation with Daniel Scherl
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These conversations are about the creative soul. They are the true experiences of creatives with their own creative impulse, and they are the private (made public) reflections on what creativity feels like on a very personal level. All interviews are conducted by Christine Bissonnette