We had the good fortune of connecting with Abel Horwitz and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Abel, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I fully understood there was a place called “Hollywood”, but the notion of being able to have a career there simply didn’t make sense to me. As far as I could understand, you were either born into it or you weren’t, and I wasn’t.
I was part of the theater program in high school, I got a degree in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico, but after that I was simply left to scratch my head and ask, “What comes next?”
What came next was a tax incentive to bring film and TV work to New Mexico. We started to see film sets pop up around the city and New Mexico pushed hard to get as many locals employed as possible.
I had left my college job at Trader Joe’s to start working for a press release distribution firm, and very quickly realized that this was not the gig I wanted to make a career out of. Through a family friend I had been connected to the (now former) head of the Albuquerque film office. Her name is Ann Lerner. On Thursday she called me asking if I was interested in interning on a film set for no money. I told her “No thank you, I have a job, I don’t think I can do that.”
On Friday I got fired.
On Monday I went to see Ann.
On Tuesday I had an internship.
I worked 12 – 16 hour days, first in the production office, and then on the film set. I met movie stars (Betty White!!! Billy Zane!!!) and dozens of people who worked professionally on movies. I was exhausted all the time, I gained 15 pounds eating all of the snacks in craft services, and for the first time in my life I was buzzing when I went to work. I watched actors act and thought to myself, “Oh, these are just human beings. They’re just doing their job.”
The star of the film, his name is Tom Malloy, was also the writer. He was extremely generous to the interns and happy to let us in on his secret: Get good with writing, and get good with rejection. Invest in yourself. Make your own career.
I worked on various other sets (including “Breaking Bad”, Season 1) and then moved to NYC because I noticed that everyone on the set who was above-the-line came from NY or LA. NY felt more exciting to me.
I looked for other gigs — I thought that advertising might scratch the creative itch…it didn’t — but noted how much I buzzed whenever I took a class at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, made a short film with friends or found myself performing onstage. I also noted the voice in the back of my head telling me that NYC was a lot of fun, but if I wanted Hollywood, I needed to go to Hollywood.
So I moved to LA.
“The Artist’s Way” is a book I recommend to everyone, and I firmly believe that we all have a creative *spark* inside of us. I think of it like a flame burning inside of your chest. When I tried to snuff out the flame, or seek an alternative to the path because I thought it would be an easier way to go, I’d feel a sharp burning sensation inside of my chest, as if the unfanned ember was burning a hole into my heart. When I started moving in the direction of the things that turned me on, usually the things that aren’t associated with a large paycheck but things that made me happy, I would feel a warm sensation, like a happy, crackling fireplace in my chest. Is that the best analogy? I don’t know…but it works for me. It’s what I envision.
If the question is “Why did I choose an artistic career?” my answer is, “I didn’t choose it, I followed it.”
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
It’s hard to know where to start, but I will point out that I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am Jewish, and I grew up around very few other Jews. I felt like an outsider, and I know that I’ve held onto that feeling my entire life. At first I hated it. If I could have scrubbed Judaism out of my skin I would have. But as I got older the voice in my head told me, “Either you get good with it, or you spend a lifetime hating yourself.” So I got good with it.
I can directly credit this point of view for the journey I’ve been on. I’ve found myself very uncomfortable in any sort of pursuit that feels too mainstream. I simply don’t feel like I belong there. I’ve hated auditioning for stuff, feeling like I’m just a nobody trying to impress a room full of strangers, so I’ve always been more comfortable working on my own stuff or with friends on things I truly believe in.
I can also point to seeing the show “Sleep No More” in NYC as a major turning point in my career. It’s a play that you can walk through, and it’s credited for introducing a generation to a genre of theater that isn’t exactly new, but the show certainly brought “Immersive Entertainment” into the conversation.
After seeing the show I was buzzing, and I knew I wanted more. I was lucky enough to get an internship on “Sleep No More”, and got to see the behind the scenes mechanisms of it. I also got early exposure to a burgeoning art form, and it gave me some sort of “cred” when I moved to LA and began pursuing immersive theater as a career.
The next big door to open was getting cast as a monster at Universal Studios “Halloween Horror Nights”. As I stood in my monster costume scaring teenagers I noted that I was in a piece of immersive theater: There were lights, sound effects, costumes, storytelling techniques…but it was branded under a different name and called a “Haunted House”. I figured that it was attracting an audience who probably wouldn’t be interested in something if it was called a “play”, but if you called it a “Haunted House” they’d buy a ticket.
I Googled “Horror theater Los Angeles” and Zombie Joe’s Underground popped up. I sent the website an email, and perhaps 1/2 an hour later I got an email back from some dude named Zombie Joe telling me to give him a call, where he invited me to come see one of his shows. As soon as I stepped into the lobby I knew I’d found my tribe. Outsiders. Weirdos. Those who don’t fit in anywhere else.
From there I ran lights for the theater for two shows, acted in one of them, and then saw their signature horror show “Urban Death” onstage.
“Urban Death” hit me like a lightning bolt. For starters, it was utterly terrifying in a way I didn’t know a live show could be. It also behaved differently than anything I’d ever seen. It wasn’t a plotted story, but a series of short vignettes depicting a whole gamut of emotions. Some were hilarious, others were terrifying, and others were just disgusting. Each one hit in a different way. I walked out of that show speechless.
I pitched Zombie Joe the idea I’d come up with of turning “Urban Death” into a haunted house, telling him what I’d learned from Universal Studios. I give all the credit to Zombie Joe, because he took a chance with my idea.
We began to build out the tiny lobby of the theater into a maze that people would snake through, see an abbreviated version of the show, and then snake back through the lobby with actors playing different characters.
It wound up being the most successful show in the theater’s history, and it just kept getting bigger and more popular from there.
I took a swing and I was rewarded for it. The next swing was bigger, and the next one bigger after that.
My current project, one I’ve been working on for several years, is called “Serial Killer Speed Dating”. It’s actual speed dating, but hidden among the daters is a serial killer, and it’s up to you to figure out if you’re sitting across from a potential match or a potential murderer.
This was an idea that tickled the back of my head when I noticed that at a Star Wars convention they had a speed dating table. I thought to myself, “Oh, what a great idea for like-minded people to meet.”
I pitched this idea to a friend who was putting together a horror-themed convention, and she said, “I like it, but you need some sort of spooky twist.” Another friend said, “Throw in a serial killer!” I looked at him, looked at her, and said, “I’ll make that.”
I’d never run a speed dating event before, but the logistics were simple enough. I figured if I got 20 people to my event I’d be good….I got 100.
I ran the event on-and-off for several years. It gave me something that was “mine”. I love “Urban Death”, but the concept isn’t mine, I am merely a cog in the machine. “Serial Killer Speed Dating” is mine.
When the pandemic hit a colleague I’d met through the show gave me a call to check in and see how I was doing. He told me, almost as an aside, “You know…I think that speed dating thing could work in the pandemic.”
I took him seriously. We formed a partnership and an LLC, and we got to work.
Nothing about a creative career is easy. If it was easy, then we wouldn’t reward those at the “top” so handsomely. For every actor you see on TV, just know that there are uncountable more waiting tables, and for every one of them, there are even more just moving to LA looking for their big break.
Honestly, if you’re coming out here because you’re looking to get famous, then you’re in it for the wrong reason. You pursue a career in the arts because you simply can’t imagine yourself doing anything else that would make you as satisfied.
I’ve had steady employment as an executive assistant for the majority of my time in LA. Before that I was a caterer. I don’t consider those my careers. I can’t even put a finger on what I’d classify myself as: I write, I produce, I host, I act, I run a small business.
As of now, my career isn’t where my paycheck comes from, it isn’t where my health insurance comes from, but it’s where my heart is. It’s who I am.
Work begets work. Everyone has a million dollar idea, but it’s those ideas that actually come to fruition that people give a shit about. I can’t tell you how many “brilliant” ideas I’ve had, but I can concretely point you to the ones that have been made.
It also takes time. Amy Poehler said it took her ten years to get any sort of break, because at that point her friends were in positions to hire her. Ten years. Are you willing to put ten years into a career with zero guarantee of success? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. What about 20?
I took two years of an acting class, between 2016 and 2018. The class started with about 40, maybe 50 people in it. In the end, there were seven of us who graduated. Seven of us who stuck with it. That’s a great metaphor for this career. I think of a Kevin Hart quote: “Everyone wants to be famous, and nobody wants to work.” If you’re the one who wants to work, you’ll automatically stand out.
It took a long time — I’m at my ten year mark in LA now — and I’m finally in a position where I’m the Creative in the room. I’ve had so many out of body experiences where I go, “This entire room full of people is here because of my idea.” It’s overwhelming, but I’m always thrilled by it.
I’ve also had to learn to tell myself that I deserve to be in the room. That I’ve worked hard to get into this room, and that I need to protect my idea, because ideas are precious and no one sees it exactly the way you see it. It’s up to you to get them to your point of view. Otherwise, the project just becomes a mess. You need to be the one with a clear vision.
I am extremely grateful to have grown up feeling like an outsider. It gave me an incredible tool belt to work with. I don’t know what advice to give someone because a creative career doesn’t follow any set path. For sure it’s that you should invest in yourself and your interests. Follow the path that makes you happy, no matter if it pays or not. Recognize it’ll take longer than you think it will take. Don’t let anyone else define your success. And seek out ways to take care of yourself. Your career will NOT hold you at night when you’re feeling lonely. It will not be a shoulder to lean on when you’re stressed. Be good to yourself. Surround yourself with loved ones. Recognize that tomorrow is another day.
I don’t know…things you can probably put on a motivational poster. Hang in there, baby!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Ha! I was just in Las Vegas and was seated at a table with a bunch of 20-something dudes from Atlanta in Vegas for a bachelor party. I bought the groom a beer and he came over to sit by me. “I’ve never been to LA,” he said, “I wanna go. I know I’ll need a car. What should I see?”
I told him that he didn’t REALLY need a car if he was willing to take the metro, rideshare, and the bus, but yes, a car certainly helps. I also told him to find a neighborhood and stick around it. LA is HUGE, and you can’t see it all at once. But then I told him a few places I thought he should go check out:
I think the most quintessential LA thing someone can do is go see a film at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. It checks off every box about what I love about living in LA: it’s quirky and unique, it embraces the history of the city, it celebrates the films that come from here, and it gathers us together under (and among) the stars. I love it.
Ditto a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Heaven on earth.
The beach, yes, but my favorite beach is Dockweiler, which is where the LAX airplanes fly overhead and I love how unique of an experience that is, but is that really what an out-of-towner wants to see? My Vegas friend would probably enjoy the Santa Monica beach more, because it’s so iconic, and then I’d tell him that he HAS to eat at Cha Cha Chicken.
The Hollywood Walk of Fame is depressing, but seeing a movie at either the Chinese Theater or the El Capitan is such a fun experience, so I’d tell him to go do that.
And then go up to Griffith Observatory. You’ll get the Hollywood sign, a view of the city, and a great museum all for free.
I don’t hang out there, but Beverly Hills is where I’d direct him to next, because it’s so iconic. And then, if he’s feeling artsy, go to the Getty or LACMA. Go to the Academy Museum when it opens.
Also do a studio tour. I’m partial to the Paramount Studios tour, but the Warner Bros lot is cool, too.
If he’s feeling quirky, go to the Velaslavasay Panorama. If he’s feeling weird go to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. If he’s looking for a slice of avante garde theater I’d be remiss to not include Zombie Joe’s Underground on this list.
Best burger in the world, The Apple Pan. Second best burger, The Habit. In N Out is ok, but somehow it’s the most famous one, so that’s the one he’ll want to go to.
If he wants the quintessential “Californians on SNL” experience: Hands down go to Cafe Gratitude. It’ll blow his mind.
I haven’t done it, but is the TMZ tour still running? That seems to be the best bet to see someone “famous”. Wanna see someone really famous? Like capital “F” famous? Go hang out in either the Gelson’s in Franklin Village or any of the real fancy grocery stores in Beverly Hills. Tell Mark Wahlberg to say hi to his mother for me.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Oh gosh…hmm…let’s start with the two books: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho and “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. These two books are essential foundation books to give one the courage to follow their dreams.
I’ll give credit to my parents, who put a lot of pressure on me growing up to choose something much more practical (they were heavily gunning for me to be either a Rabbi or a lawyer) but as they watched me evolve and mature (and saw that I wasn’t asking them to pay my rent every month) they really rooted me on. When I produced a show that went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival they flew out to see it. And we’re not talking about something tame and safe. We’re talking blood, guts, me naked on stage, extreme horror theater, and there they were, front row. I mean…come on!
Shout out to Zombie Joe and Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, my safe space, my artistic family, who pushed me further than I could have possibly imagined. Shout out to Jana Wimer, genius director and confidant whom I trust implicitly.
Shout out to Carrie Johnson, who met me in a writing class and saw my potential.
Shout out to MeeRa Kim, Michael Henderson and Ted Schilowitz who keep saying “yes” when I pitch them ideas.
Shout out Jacob Patterson, my business partner, who has turned me into a professional.
Shout out to my core group of best friends, who have provided me shoulders to lean on and absolute “We don’t give a shit about your successes, you’re still our idiot high school friend” vibes. Ditto my brother and sister, who love me and think I’m crazy.
To my girlfriend, theater colleagues, work colleagues and a whole smattering of people I’ve met in the last fifteen years who have shaped my life, experience and choices. Who have come to see my shows. Who have introduced me to new ideas.
(Actually, writing this down, thinking about how my path has been shaped and molded and the doors that have been opened and closed to me….to realize how much love and support I’ve been surrounded by…it’s overwhelming. I feel like the luckiest boy in the world.)
Photos by Jana Wimer, Kady Chun and NBC