BROOKSVILLE — One thing’s for sure, Jim Picariello’s been through a lot in life. The 46-year-old joined and left a cult in his 20s, launched a successful frozen-tea business and lost it in his 30s, and now he is an aspiring screenplay writer who hopes to someday write the scripts for movies full time.
The Brooksville resident may have taken a big step forward in that direction. A short film he wrote and directed over the summer was accepted by “Sesame Street” in September to be broadcast to millions of viewers on HBO at 9 a.m. on Feb. 17.
The short is set at the bucolic David Folly’s Farm in Brooksville, where a 6-year-old’s birthday party is under way. The film is about counting things, so there are shots of kids counting birthday candles, and how many times they’ve pumped a water pump.
One thing that takes a while to count is how many hours it took Picariello to produce the clip.
Between shooting the party, reshooting it and editing it to fit the PBS show’s broadcast standards, he estimated he spent 80 hours on the minute-and-20-second-long clip.
All that work could pay off when Picariello adds it to his list of credentials. Still, the odds of him becoming a full-time screenwriter, he said, are practically astronomical.
“It’s like becoming an astronaut,” he said. “So many people want to become one, but there are only so many spots available.”
There is no set path to becoming a successful screenwriter, Picariello said, but a good way to get noticed is to have the right directors, producers or agents read your work.
The thing is, there are thousands of other aspiring screenwriters who are already in line.
“They have virtual mountains of scripts that people have sent them that are promised to be excellent,” said Picariello, who works as an instructional designer at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Despite those odds, and despite being isolated in rural Maine without many other screenwriters around, one of Picariello’s screenplays has received encouraging feedback.
Titled “The Cult of Us,” the screenplay is about a computer programmer and his roommate, who fall in love as they try to save each other from the cults they’re in, without realizing that they themselves are in cults.
The screenplay draws heavily from Picariello’s year in a Buddhist computer programming cult.
It took a peaceful intervention from Picariello’s family and former high school classmates to snap him out of the cult. Twenty-five years later, part of Picariello’s goal in his screenplay is to portray cults the way they actually are.
“When you see cults on TV they live in communes and they have guns,” he said. “But 90 to 95 percent of cults you’d ever meet are just sales cults or religious cults, where they wear normal clothes and have a job, but the cult keeps them under incredible control.”
Being in a cult, Picariello said, is like “having your entire personality removed and replaced with a different person’s personality.”
Coming out of a cult was no cakewalk for him either.
“Imagine having that personality taken away from you and you go back to the personality that allowed you to get into that situation in the first place,” he said. “Without being overtly physical, it was pretty bad. I had to do a lot of self-work to heal that.”
There is a bright side though: “The Cult of Us” advanced into the prestigious 2015 Academy Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalist round. It was also a second rounder at the Austin Film Festival.
On top of all that, Picariello’s 2015 short film “This Time It’s Shopping” won awards at film festivals across the country. All of those achievements are great feathers in an aspiring screenwriter’s cap.
“If I’m trying to apply for a fellowship, I can say I was a quarterfinalist at Nicholls, I have an award-winning short and I did something for ‘Sesame Street,’” he said. “That all helps a lot. It makes people go ‘Oh, he’s kind of serious!’”
Between working at Maine Maritime Academy, raising two daughters and surviving the Maine winter, Picariello probably won’t start any new film projects until the spring. But he has an idea in mind.
“It’s titled ‘Passive-aggressive dads,’” said the Brooksville resident. “It’s about two dads pushing their kids on the swing. Life isn’t going their way, so how can they get their personal power back?”
Picariello writes hilarious, self-deprecating essays about his time in a cult, his old frozen tea business, his life as a dad in Maine and his screenwriting aspirations at http://jimpicariello.com/. His contact information can also be found there.
“I would love to connect with other writers and other artists in the area,” he said. “It would be great to strengthen that community and work on stuff together.”
Picariello’s short film, “This Time It’s Shopping,” can be found on YouTube. For being only four minutes long, it has quite the twist at the end.