A Filmmaker's Dilemma: Telling Your Own Story

By Eli Steele 

"What's Bugging Seth" was a story I avoided telling for many years. At 16 years old, my first effort at script writing was about a young man with hearing loss overcoming his handicap in order to succeed in the so-called "normal" world. It was a struggle I was intimately familiar with having been born with a bilateral profound hearing loss. The finished script was okay, but something about it bothered me and I put it aside.         

Looking back now, I realize what my misgivings were. I had put the script aside because I did not want to be seen as a deaf filmmaker. I spent all my life overcoming my handicap and I did not want to be pigeonholed into a specific stereotype. You don't hear Martin Scorsese described as the asthmatic filmmaker or Steven Spielberg as the child-of- divorced-parents filmmaker. They're filmmakers, period, and I wanted to be considered the same way. So I wrote many scripts: comedies, period pieces, action, etc. Several were well received, convincing me to continue working part-time jobs at Starbucks and the post office after graduating from New York University's Tisch School for the Arts and Claremont McKenna College. While working for my "big break," I received a cochlear implant that allowed me to talk on the phone, listen to music and hear movies in the theater for the first time in my life. Throughout all of this, the story of the man with hearing loss would pop up periodically in my consciousness only to be pushed back aside.   

One day, while working on an action script, a powerful image popped up in my head: a young man driving his old beat up truck along the Monterey Coast. I then realized he was wearing hearing aids. I tried to erase the image, but it evolved into many other images and soon I had several pages of scribbled notes. As the story of Seth Singer came to life, I saw him struggling with his identity as a person with hearing loss. Through his efforts to build a bug extermination business and his romances with Alma, a double amputee, and Nora, a model, he did not want to be seen as a person with a hearing loss. He wanted to be seen as Seth Singer,the individual. 

It wasn't long before I realized that his problem was the same as mine: denying my handicap while being undeniably handicapped. What are the consequences of denying part of who you are? The ultimate irony that Seth discovers is that it is not until he finally accepts his hearing loss that he is truly free to be whomever he wants and to love whomever he wants. And it wasn't until I embraced my hearing loss as an integral part of myself that I was able to make "What's Bugging Seth," and, in the process, establish myself as a filmmaker. 

Production of "What's Bugging Seth"

Making "What's Bugging Seth" was a very intense experience. It was my first feature length film and there was so much riding on it, from investment money to professional relationships. Making a movie is a gamble with no guaranteed outcomes. There were so many variables that could go wrong and I knew I would be facing many obstacles in which my hearing loss would play a big role. 

As a young kid, I visited the set of the film "House Party" and I remember feeling intimidated. I had seen the director speak and listen through a headset, hold meetings and lead the crew through complicated logistics. How could I listen to a headset when I had a hearing loss and how could I lead people if my speech wasn't clear? But I knew that if I wanted to make "What's Bugging Seth" I would have to figure out how to make my instructions and expectations clear. 

Right off the bat there were two things I had going for me: my belief in the script and my cochlear implant. My belief in the material that I was about to film allowed me to have the confidence that would convince everybody from the bank to the crew that this was a worthy investment of their time. If I did not have that confidence, the film would not have been completed. A major contributor to that confidence was the fact that I had received a cochlear implant. People close to me have told me that my personality changed after getting the implant-that I became less shy, more outgoing and more confident. When I think about it, it is truly amazing how much the ability to hear can change a person. It allowed me to believe that I could do what was needed to make this film happen, from cold-calling strangers and assembling a crew to filming and producing the final reels. 

During production, I had a crew of 22 people and a cast of 15. I needed to manage and instruct each person. I would often show up onset two hours earlier than call time so I could start talking to people and tell them what was needed from them for the day. During complex conversations, I always made an effort to have whomever I was talking to repeat my words back to me to make sure we were on the same page. While this extra effort prevented many potential problems, there were always little things that slipped through the crack. For example, one time my director of photography saw a perfect shot as the sun was setting. I was 100 feet away and he yelled for me to come over. Unfortunately, my CI battery died at that moment so I did not hear him and we missed a potentially great shot. While it hurt to miss the shot, I knew I had to be thankful that there were not a lot of those. Being born with a hearing loss prepared me for the fact that I would always have to go the extra mile to make sure that everyone was on the same page and that everything was clicking as it should be. 

Upon completion, "What's Bugging Seth," became an instant hit on the film festival circuit, winning awards at the first four of five festivals it was entered. To date, it has won nine awards at over 20 festivals all over the world. 

When I look back on the making of the film in relation to my hearing loss, the response I received was very positive. For about 80 percent of the people I dealt with, my hearing loss was a non-factor. Another 10 percent were interested in me because they had a friend or relative who was deaf or hard of hearing and wanted to share their stories. It was the last 10 percent that were the most curious to me. This group simply did not believe that I was deaf, as in "you're not really deaf, are you?" I believe this was due to the fact that I was oral and did not fit the stereotype of a deaf person who signs. To these people, sometimes I felt like replying, "No, you're right. I had the cochlear implant drilled into my head just for fun." However, I usually just smiled and told them that I was born profoundly deaf at birth and was fortunate to have parents and teachers who believed in me and never stopped pushing me to succeed. Hopefully, my explanation broadens their understanding of the orally deaf and hard of hearing community. 

Future Projects

Eli just finished shooting a pilot called "Katrina" for Viacom's The N Network (a television channel aimed at teenagers and young adults). The show is a dramedy that tells the story of two poor teenagers (one orally deaf) who lose everything in Hurricane Katrina. They end up in San Francisco with two over-privileged teenagers and their lesbian parents. In addition to the pilot, Eli is also developing other TV shows for other companies.