Mythologizing for a purpose

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Justin DiPego (Oakes ’90, literature and creative writing).

Before Justin DiPego (Oakes ’90, literature, creative writing) began his careers as an editor, handyman, filmmaker, horse wrangler, screenwriter, or author, he was choosing colleges. After just one visit to UC Santa Cruz, he knew: “This is where I need to be.”

DiPego’s career path is a twisting one, beginning in the construction industry and horse-work, transitioning into a chief editorial position at a major home improvement magazine, becoming a writer-for-hire and then filmmaker. Following his exit from his editorial role in the corporate sphere, DiPego would then go on to start his own production company, DiPego Now Entertainment, where he wrote and directed multiple screenplays. For DiPego, the path of his foreseeable future was clear. However, DiPego’s path would quickly grow cloudy, with a world-defining obstacle suddenly appearing in his way: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I decided to take up the reins of my own career, and instead of waiting for someone else to hire me, I was just going to go ahead and be my own production company,” he said. “I started a production company called DiPego Now Entertainment. I already had a certain number of screenplays written specifically to be shot on a low budget and that I could handle myself. I was recruiting people to be a part of my organization and my team, and I had a movie that was getting a cast. And then the pandemic started.”

DiPego would need to halt his work mid-production and adjust to an entirely new world with the advent of the rapidly spreading virus. DiPego drastically pivoted from working mid-production to sheltering in place–and would find himself adjusting his path even further. Once it was clear his work on the film needed to wait, he unearthed another project from ten years ago: an urban fantasy novel, inspired by his experiences as a handyman working throughout LA.

DiPego has always held a great passion for writing. DiPego tracks his time as an author back to his family of writers, taking influence from his parents and siblings. During his time at UCSC, he found himself exposed to an entirely new world of creativity.

“It was really fortuitous that I ended up exactly in the place where I needed because the setting on the hill in the redwoods completely spoke to me, but then also, the creative environment up there was so rich and welcoming,” DiPego said. “It was so easy to be an artist up there–and so I immediately found myself at home.”

DiPego credits UCSC’s environment for allowing students to produce their work, whether it was their best or their worst work. He recalls a specific moment when an instructor encouraged his dissenting opinions on class readings, wherein he transitioned from quiet observer to active participant.

“We all had the license to produce our worst work as artists, whether we were actors or writers or musicians or graphic art painters and sculptors because everything was happening,” DiPego said. “Everybody was kind of mixed. I was a creative writing major, but I was doing a lot of theater as well because everything artistically was very melded together. [...] It was all right there, which was fascinating, and so invigorating.”

DiPego’s written works focus on the perspectives of the hidden side of Los Angeles not often depicted in popular media–centering on narratives from disenfranchised workingmen or the thousands of homeless individuals in the city. DiPego’s focus on the working class in his work tracks back to his own time working as a handyman–a position where he recalls feeling invisible to most of the people that lived in the area, but gained access to a literal and metaphorical window into their lives. He was witness to dozens of stories that were normally hidden away, all of which influenced and inspired him in his work.

DiPego’s work has always sought to combine modern depictions of Los Angeles with the world of the supernatural in the genre of Urban Fantasy. However, to DiPego, this genre isn’t simply about the combination, but a continuation of the mythology that fantasy represents.

“People have been using [fantasy] as a storytelling vehicle for thousands of years, and that is the tradition that I wanted to take part in,” he said. “The very earliest stories that we know are fantasy; the Epic of Gilgamesh is a work of fantasy–we talk about it as mythology now. But essentially it's the same genre. I wanted to participate in that kind of mythologizing for a purpose.”

DiPego still utilizes his experience from the melding of the arts he was immersed in at UC Santa Cruz. When DiPego writes, he uses every form of media available to him, from illustrations integrated throughout his writing to musical references and playlists to accompany the reading. Just as DiPego was exposed to innumerable artistic disciplines during his time at UCSC, he now passes on that inter-artistic experience to his audiences.

Justin DiPego's second novel Wrong Side of a Workingman, is available for purchase at Bookshop Santa Cruz and on Amazon. DiPego Now Entertainment can be reached at DiPegoNow.com, with a catalog of books, films, screenplays, and DIY videos.