No one taps into our desires better than Hollywood with its worship of power and beauty, penchant for excess and appeal to drama. This is where go-getters from all over the world gather to hit the jackpot. You can feel the collective drive and ambition in the air, like a force thundering towards a singular goal. The divide between the have-it-all’s and the want-to-have’s is as clear as Sunset Boulevard, slicing the city in half all the way to the glittering ocean.
This is where a 33-year-old high school dropout named Scott Neeson arrived from Australia for a job at a movie studio. In a town where entertainment is the industry, the studios are like good witches with a magic wand, making dreams come true for a lucky few. With brains, tenacity and charm, Scott quickly climbed to the top and became the President of 20th Century Fox International, overseeing the release of some of history’s biggest blockbusters, like Titanic, Braveheart, X-Men and Independence Day. He got Academy Awards. He flew on private jets with movie stars. He partied with them, too. His paycheck was beyond his wildest dreams, and he bought a black Porsche and a mansion two doors down from Cindy Crawford. His weekends were spent on his yacht with friends, speeding to Catalina Island with the sun hitting his beach blond hair. The American Dream was his in spades. He was one of the lucky few. Anything he wanted was at his fingertips.
Or was it? Because this is where the story comes to a screeching halt. At age 45, at the peak of his career, Scott walked away from it all. During a long-deserved vacation to Southeast Asia before starting a new job at Sony Pictures International, he stumbled upon a toxic landfill that spanned eight football fields outside Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. There, he came face-to-face with a small child digging through the mountains of hazardous waste. “I asked someone, ‘Is there anyone here to help her?” says Scott. “But there was no one there. No charity. No organization. No one I could send my salary to. It was a no man’s land with kids who were starving, basically dying. Suddenly I was faced with the great hypocrisy of, ‘Are you going to turn around and walk away? Or are you going to make a difference in this little girl’s life?'”
Today, Scott’s story has been told numerous times in the media. It’s one of those rare examples of how a single moment of clarity — seeing a forlorn child in a garbage dump — pierced the illusion that material wealth is a sure path to happiness. For a third less than what he paid for monthly cable television at the time, Scott enrolled the girl in school, moved her family into housing, paid their rent and arranged for a proper job for her mother. Within a year, he had sold everything he owned and moved to Cambodia to start the Cambodian Children’s Fund. His organization (CCF) is now a four-star non-profit that provides top notch education and childcare for more than 1900 children, free health care for 3000 patients a month and 200,000 loaves of bread to hungry families every year. His education program has been named “the world’s most innovative” by the Qatar Foundation and he recently launched a partnership with World Housing where, for every house sold in North America, CCF will build a house in Cambodia for a family in need.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Scott leaving Hollywood, and with his birthday coming up this weekend, it’s time for an update. Scott has always been one to pilot his own destiny, and listening to him talk — his Australian accent full of intelligence, passion and calm — is a profound experience.
Ulrica: What happened to you on that day in 2003 when you first went to the garbage dump?
Scott: We’ve all watched those ads on television and felt there’s no way our money can solve it. But on that day, it was my money, it was my decision, and there was no way I could walk away. If there had been an organization I could’ve sent my money to, I’m not sure I would’ve moved here. But there was no one to help these kids. And it was so easy to help. In one day, I got that girl and her whole family off the garbage dump, enrolled her in school, found the mother a proper job and paid for their rent for a month. And the whole cost was around $40.
Ulrica: You were at the peak of your career when you left Hollywood.
Scott: You know, I came from working class roots, I didn’t finish high school, so for me it was magic. It was a wonderful adventure. I couldn’t believe people would pay me such amazing amounts of money and that I’d be traveling around the world and work on such incredible projects. I had things I never dreamed of in my younger days, like boats and big houses and Academy Awards and stuff like that. It was great. When I left, most people thought I would be back. Other people thought it was a midlife crisis. Some thought I’d lost my mind! But it was a decision of the heart much more than of the head. Being in the film business, you got the entire community all trying to reach this golden orbit. I was the head of a film studio, and I walked away. It didn’t compute to a lot of people because it was such an anomaly.
Ulrica: What did it feel like to walk away from all of it?
Scott: It felt great. Honestly! I had all the material goods, but I was never quite comfortable with them. I found it very liberating to get rid of it all. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but all that you own become a weight on your life because you end up working for it. You end up spending more time taking care of your stuff, to pay for it and maintain it, than you do enjoying it. And it didn’t make me any happier. That was the big realization.
Ulrica: Did you buy into the American dream; the idea that you’d be happier with all those things?
Scott: Yes, I bought into that belief when I bought my Porsche, when I bought my boat, that I would be a happier person and that it would make me feel more complete. All the things advertisements make you believe. But it just wasn’t the case. It didn’t live up to its promises. I think I felt kind of cheated in some way. You follow the American dream and you end up realizing that a lot of it is just bullshit. It’s not true. You’re no happier when you buy the nicer refrigerator or the fancier car. We’re all programmed to believe that if you own this, if you buy that, your family will love you more, your life will be better…and in my case it didn’t hold up. I expected so much more.
Ulrica: How do you feel about your life now?
Scott: I couldn’t wish for a more fulfilling life. It’s really really difficult and there are days when I’d much rather be someone else. You’re dealing with the most egregious child abuses and there are 1900 children I feel very responsible for. It’s a huge undertaking. It’s a lot to carry and it’s stressful, because I’m very conscious of the responsibility I have in making sure these kids get everything we promised them. But you know, it’s so rewarding to be able to bring someone out of a terrible situation and see them thrive. And the beauty is that I get to do it every day of my life. I still go down to the garbage dump and there’s always a new child. Now, I have the infrastructure to genuinely help them for the long term and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Ulrica: Describe the transformation that happens in a child that you find and pull out of the garbage dump.
Scott: There’s a light that comes on in their eyes, just within a few days. It’s such a dramatic difference that it’s hard to understand. People always ask me why they look so happy. It’s because they’re from such a different universe. They got no real expectations apart from living their lives being garbage pickers, so coming here, they feel they’re the luckiest kids in the country. The way it works is that there’s more benefit to the entire family if the child is studying. So if the child comes to school every day and studies hard, the family receives medical care, maternal care, counseling and food. So the child knows that the best thing they can do for their family is to study. If they go to school, their family will be taken care of. Especially for the girls, it’s a huge weight that’s lifted off their shoulders. The kids that first came here in 2004 and 2005, every single one, are all going to university! It’s like a dream for me to have that happen.
Ulrica: You used to live in one of the most beautiful — and wealthiest — cities in the world. Do you miss anything about your old life?
Scott: I miss a lot, actually. I miss a lot of my friends. I actually miss not having my boat and the experience of going out with my friends to the islands. I miss not being in a relationship and having someone I’m very close to. I miss all those things. But I actually find more beauty in any given day here than I would ever find where I used to live. There are the most stunning examples of beauty here every day. Just looking at the faces of the kids you pull out of that garbage dump and seeing their eyes light up with joy within days…that’s more beauty than I could ever ask for. Are there days when I’d rather be driving through the Santa Monica Mountains than digging through a garbage dump in Cambodia? Of course I have those days. But the beauty I find here is more profound. In terms of regrets, I have none whatsoever.
Do you think you’ll stay in Cambodia for the rest of your life?
Scott: That’s a really hard question [laugh]. To be terribly honest, I would never want to grow old in Phnom Penh. I don’t like it as a city. It lacks values, it’s corrupt, but these children are like my own children. I would miss them as much as they’d miss me. I’ve raised these kids and I don’t want to leave them alone in this country. I feel as strongly towards these kids as any parent does towards their own children. I couldn’t imagine them not being a part of my life. They’re my family now. I just love being with these kids. That first day I came here ten years ago…it was gut wrenching. Something deep shifted inside of me. It was no longer abstract. There was a child right in front of me who was dying. Would I walk away or would I help? Those are the moments when you’re faced with your own mortality.
• By Ulrica Wihlborg
Photography by VII Photo’s Ron Haviv © 2014.
This is part one of a two-part series on Scott Neeson. Please come back next month (April) for the final installment. To learn more about CCF, visit their website and sponsor a child.
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