Neal Steeno’s life is like a movie.
After graduating from college, Neal lived out of a car in the Arizona desert. Neal introduced himself to a stranger in a cafe who gave him the best advice of his life. That day, Neal quit his job and hopped on a plane to pursue his love of film.
Neal ventured to Vietnam to produce the film Naneek which traces a vet’s journey back to Vietnam to confront his difficult emotions. Neal has a knack for telling people’s stories, especially honest stories that reveal vulnerability and truth.
Tell us about yourself.
My goal has always been to do everything I imagined as a kid. Granted, I would often pretend to be a backup dancer for MC Hammer. That one might be a lost cause. Before filming Naneek in Vietnam this past year, I worked in public radio, television, conservation and visual design. I also pride myself on a constantly changing beard. It happens to be my spirit animal.
Describe a typical day in your life.
Most mornings I crawl out of my bat cave by sunrise armed with a heavy dose of caffeine and a podcast. Currently, I am a freelance Art Director for an outdoor brand called M22. Basically, I curate and design new campaigns for their apparel line. It also allows me to research interesting adventure stories from around the Great Lakes. Their one rule about work is if it’s a super nice day out, go get lost outside. When they speak, I listen. Oh, and I currently live in Milwaukee, so there is a mandatory beer at some point.
5 years ago, would you be surprised at where you are today?
Yes! At that point, I had just graduated college and was on a pilgrimage to find purpose in my life. Instead, I found myself in the Arizona desert drenched in sweat doing trail work 12 hours a day. A time where I found out quickly that beds are nice, and that toilet paper is a luxury. Long story short, I was soon broke, a nomad and living out of a car in Los Angeles. Future Neal for sure would’ve gotten a major fist bump.
Who motivates you?
This past year I watched my mother beat cancer for a second time. Her constant positivity alone is enough motivation to really process my own aspirations. Second to that, Nick Offerman. He just gets it.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
This is by far the most perfectly timed advice I had ever received. It was magical in the moment because at the time I was contemplating changing careers to go film Naneek. In the late 90’s, there was a cult-classic film called American Movie that starred a Milwaukee man named Mark Borchardt. He was writing right next to me at a cafe so I introduced myself. Mark had his hands dipped in 7 or so drafts of theatre plays. A goatee down to the middle of his chest. For some reason, I thought to myself, Neal, you should totally ask this guy for advice. Instead, he wrote me a note which read, ‘Neal, please, please be true to yourself and don’t waste any time…’ The next day I quit my job to do a film.
Tell us about being a storyteller.
As cliché as it sounds, everyone is a storyteller. I’m no different. We are all making some form of history. For me personally, I love odd and interesting people. People who don’t necessarily get a fair shake. My start in producing stories began with a project I’d created called Weathered Beard. It would be like The Moth marrying a bunch of burly bearded dudes. The setting for our show was perfect. We hosted our events in this old retro bar, back in a super quiet room, with our speakers live up on stage. All attention was on the storyteller. That setting alone revealed so much honesty, vulnerability and emotion. Our process in finding a ‘weathered beard’ was real simple though. My friend Ben and I would walk the streets and ask men why they grew the beard. Most answered with they were just lazy or were covering a double chin. But, that simple question was also a gateway to many untapped truths.
My favorite medium will always be radio. It allows you to convey an emotion, a belief, a story, yet do it so easily.
Why do you use about.me?
about.me was my online sherpa as we began to prepare for Vietnam. I was a mess trying to prepare for that film. Over the course of a few months, about.me connected me with expats who were living in Vietnam. We connected with writers and guides who shared resources to get us around the country. Without you, I’m pretty sure we’d still be lost in the jungle starting our own colony. It’s so rewarding to say that I had a tangible and real connection because of about.me.
Anna Lizaur is a Marketing Manager with about.me. She graduated from the University of Virginia. Anna is fluent in Spanish and can count to 100 in Chinese.