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Pre-production stress

Last month I met with a DP to set a date for shooting a short film on June 10th. I wrote it and I’m going to direct it. And I’m producing it as I don’t have a go-to producer yet, a real partner to handle the big picture stuff of securing locations and finding talent and all that.

It’s not fun. I don’t hate it but it is not fun. What I don’t like about casting and hiring and finding locations and arranging all the resources to be on a certain day is this: it’s asynchronous. It’s a big spreadsheet with a lot of pending items. You can’t brute force it. You can’t spend 12 hours straight just knocking it out.

You have to wait for people to get back to you with someone’s email and then they do and you email that person and then you have to wait to hear back from them and they say “no, sorry, we don’t want you to film in our bar” and then you have to find another one.

It’s loose ends all over the place. Interlocking pieces that depend on other pieces, and endless if/else’s branching out in the rows and columns. It makes me slightly insane.

But there’s a date set, an immovable date slowly creeping toward you. Having gone through it a few times now, I know that on that date, everything will be there. Maybe not the way I hoped, but everything we need will be there.

The only thing that keeps me up at night is rain.

The possibility that it will rain on June 10 and that not everyone will be available for the rain date of June 11. Or that the Gods just decide that it will rain all that weekend and I have to decide if we’re going to make a mess in the mud and put everyone through a rainy production (if that’s even possible?) and scramble for tents at the last minute, or if we have to call the whole thing off and re-schedule.

On the bright side, it gets better. Going through this with The Deadline was crushing. There wasn’t a day from January 1 to March 22, 2016 when I didn’t feel like it was all going to fall apart at any moment. Now, it’s not so bad. It’s stressful, but I know that it will work out. If an actor drops out at the last minute, I’ll find another one. If the DP falls ill the morning of, I’ll figure something out.

You plan as best you can and then when shit goes sideways, you just take a deep breath and say “ok, what are our options?” It’s a kind of zen-like clarity that I actually enjoy in way. Once you’ve decided completely that you will make this thing happen, the setbacks don’t seem to matter. There’s no time to care or be angry.

The ship is moving and there’s no stopping it. When the ship springs a leak, do you jump overboard? No, you get a bucket and start bailing out the water. When your first mate mutinies, do you curse his lack of loyalty? No, you push him overboard and promote someone else. OK maybe this analogy is getting out of hand.

Anyway, it’s not life or death. It’s just comedy or art or whatever you want to call it. Once I’m done with this fucking spreadsheet, it will all be fun again.

Film festivals, feedback, and re-cutting

If last year was about learning how to plan for and execute production, this year has been learning about festivals.

I’ve had mixed feelings as one short has been doing very well on the festival circuit and the other one, the one that I put all my money (and credit) into and basically poured months of my life into–that one, The Deadline, is 0 for 9 so far with festivals.

Some of the ones I applied to were long-shots, but some were not. Like the Portland Comedy Film Festival, where another film I directed, Off Book, got me a best director nomination but The Deadline wasn’t selected.

The frustrating thing about it is the lack of feedback. You just get a letter that invariably states that “there were so many great submissions this year but we had to make difficult decisions.” I guess there’s no real easy way to say no to people. And it would be a tremendous amount of work to write a personal note to everyone that submitted.

I’ve been showing The Deadline to some filmmaker friends, ones with more festival experience to get their feedback. Mostly I’ve gotten the response that at 13 minutes and change, it’s hard to program. The sweet spot for shorts is 3-7 minutes. So I cut a minute out of it and I may cut another minute and a half out of it in the next month to see if that improves things. It’s not ideal — I would rather show a truncated version than let the original version sit on my hard drive. But I’ve been able to find areas where the story slows down a bit, places where a cut doesn’t change the story, just changes how its told.

Unfortunately, it’s really hard to cut when the sound is already mixed and the score was written for a certain length. I can kind of cut around the score or use audio effects to hide the cuts in the soundtrack, but there’s not much leeway in certain areas.

Off Book is only seven minutes and it’s more of a typical comedic structure with a high concept that gets executed pretty efficiently. It’s definitely easier to program and more of an audience-pleaser, while the Deadline meanders a bit more and sits in some moments longer, which makes it less likely to get a shot.

Anyway, I don’t wallow in the defeat. I’m making another short next month and have plans for a feature, maybe even as soon as this year. Making The Deadline was like going to film school and in a way this is the final lesson. Regardless of how it does, it was worth it and I stand by the work.

More daring and more sincere

My taste, I mean if I had to pick one movie, which I would  never want to do, I keep thinking about “La Strada,” because there’s such a total commitment to those people and the movie never puts itself above any of the people in it. It’s a very Franciscan approach to the drama, and to me that’s very beautiful.

[Author] George Eliot said “the purpose of art is to extend our sympathies” which I think is very beautiful. Kubrick wished all movies were “more daring and more sincere.” A lot of directors today are focusing on what is daring, but are not really focused on what is sincere.

— James Gray via Heidi Saman

Self-doubt vs. self-criticism

When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.

— Jerry Saltz in My Life As a Failed Artist

I think there’s a real dearth of “literature” about failed artists. One doesn’t have to look hard to find successful actors, artists, filmmakers, comedians, etc., talking about how they achieved success, often with an emphasis on the follow-your-dreams-and-never-give-up words of inspiration. I wish those talks were more clear about the specific mechanics of not giving up, in terms of what strategies the artists used to adjust to adversity and creatively overcome it.

Saltz had a very common experience — the self-doubt of an artist. But he wasn’t equipped with the tools or understanding to move forward with his work. And I think that’s what bothers me about the just-believe-in-yourself thinking. It’s unrealistic. Even wildly successful artists are plagued by self-doubt. The doubt doesn’t really have anything to do with the work — it’s just a feeling, not an output.

And it might even be harmful to completely believe in yourself. People who want very badly to be very good at something but feel like they are far away from being very good at that thing tend to work hard to get better so they can get closer to being very good.

The supremely confident person who isn’t already very good has no pathway to getting better except for dumb luck. Why try to improve when you already believe that you’re great?

I think the self-doubt, when channeled properly into improving oneself, is precisely what allows people to succeed if they have the right tools for managing that self-doubt and can channel it into improving their work and growing, rather than letting it cripple them or driving them to drink. Maybe if Saltz had someone in his life that could have talked him through this at the time and helped him focus his energy in the right place, he might have found a way to get through the dip and break through.

I try to frame it to myself as “given that I work really hard for a long time and challenge myself in ways that will lead to creative growth and improvement in my craft, I believe that I will get better and eventually create something that other people really want to watch.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful but I think it’s important to think through these things and figure out under what conditions a platitude might be true and under what conditions it might lead to the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.

Another thing I like about this article by Saltz is that we can also see that failure at one thing, while it can be crushing psychologically, is not the end. You can take what you learned as an artist and use it to become a good critic (I’m assuming he’s good, I have no way of knowing whether or not he is or not). There are probably a dozen other careers he could have transitioned to where his art background would have helped on some level.

I think we should be honest and admit that yes, dreams do fail, and not everyone is going to be a successful artist, no matter how much they believe that they will be. Some will fail for a lack of talent, some for a lack of willpower or hard work, and some because of the dumb fucking luck.

It’s important to talk about what happens when you fail and how to decide when it’s time to move on or when the failure is just one bump in a long road to success.

Nominated for best director at Portland Comedy Film Festival

This week I found out that I was nominated for best director (for Off Book) at the Portland Comedy Film Festival:

I would say it’s humbling but it’s not, it’s the opposite, and I hate when people say things are humbling when they are the opposite. Getting rejected over and over by festivals for The Deadline is humbling. Getting foreclosed on is humbling (which did happen to me as a result of my own hubris). Getting nominated for awards feels amazing.

Off Book wins best comedy short film at Twister Alley

I went to Woodward, OK this weekend to the Twister Alley Film festival. I’ve been to festivals before but never had a film that was up on the big screen (I’m not counting web series). It was an amazing experience, the kind of thing I think about whenever I go to a theater to see a movie. And I met a lot of amazing and friendly people and saw some really fantastic stuff. Twister Alley was just named a top 50 festival to attend for filmmakers by Moviemaker magazine and I can see why.

Off Book was nominated for awards in several categories and took home the award for best short comedy film.

And this week I found out that the film will also be playing at the end of May at the Portland Comedy Film Festival.

New short filming in June!

After helping out my friends with their web series, Menace, I’ve been itching to get back on set and shake off the feeling that comes from writing and writing and writing so much but not making anything. So I met with the DP yesterday and we set a shooting date for June on a simple short comedy. I can’t say too much about it because it’s only going to be around two minutes and the description would spoil the joke. But, it’s going to be fun and we’re going to make a mess of a sidewalk in Chicago.

Between stimulus and response there is a space.

Viktor Frankl came up with what is probably the best pop psychology line ever: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

— Viktor Frankl, via @vgr in Breaking Smart Season 2

The joy of breaking a story

I’m not a mathematician but I like to think that breaking a story is like is like solving a mathematical proof, one that hasn’t been solved before.

Same concept, but not as difficult. Math is harder than writing.

When I start, I have an idea of where I want to go with it. It might be one scene that I’ve been playing in my head, something that hasn’t found a home in a larger story yet. I have about a half dozen of these at any given time. I know them so well that I have names for them like “the trunk scene” or “the park bench scene” or the “suicidal check-in scene.” They’re orphan scenes, waiting to find a home in the right script.

Or it starts with some characters or a concept or just something I want to play with (con artists, jewel thieves, a quixotic adventure across Chicago in a day, etc.).

Eventually, a couple pieces fit together and I can see that there’s a story there. Then the hard part is building it out so it’s a full movie. Sometimes the middle shows up first and it’s about breaking the beginning and the end. A much harder version is when I have the beginning and end and the middle is the part I can’t grasp yet.

Then for weeks I sit and write ways in and out of it, trying to pull together threads, going down dead-end alleys, writing notes on possibilities. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall for a month and have to put it down — it doesn’t break until I pick it up again a year later and find the missing connection, the way through.

But it’s a wonderful feeling to sit down every morning and work around the problem until one day it clicks and the floodgates open and the story just pours out. For me, the two hard parts of writing a feature are this part (breaking the story) and then rewriting it to actually make it good. The middle part, the first draft and the core action/dialogue usually comes out pretty easily. It’s easy to tell a good story poorly. Rewriting is about telling a good story well.

But breaking it is always the most rewarding part. With each little piece that falls into place, there’s a click, a feeling of pure joy. Sometimes it’s days and days of “no, no, no, no, no” and then one day there’s a “yes” and things click and I know I have something real.

I think it’s like what solving a mathematical proof would be like because there’s a suspense to it (like in a good story). There’s always the chance that it will never click. That I’ll spend months on it and it will never break. There’s real fear there (to steal a line from the amazing Toni Erdmann, which I saw last night) and I think that’s what makes this exciting work.

I find that it helps to have a few scripts in the pipeline and to write every day. When I write every day, writer’s block isn’t an excuse to stop. It just means it’s time to put one script away for now and work on another.

 

How to choose which movies to watch

Movie-picking advice from one of my favorite blogs, Marginal Revolution:

1. If the movie was shot for the big screen, you must see it on the big screen. Otherwise your response is not to be trusted.

2. Try not to discriminate by genre or topic, for instance “I don’t like war movies,” “I don’t like romantic comedies,” and so on. You’ll miss out on the very best of that genre or topic this way, and those are very likely very good indeed. (NB: In your spare time, you can debate whether there is a horror movies exception to the principle.)

3. In my view, the bad Oscar picks were evident right away. A five year wait will only elevate some other set of mediocre movies instead. Movie awards are designed to generate publicity for the industry, not to reward merit. Ignore them.

4. I use movie criticism in the following way: I read just enough to decide if I want to see the movie, and then no more. I also try to forget what I have read. But before a second viewing of a film, I try to read as much as possible about it.

5. On net, I find the best reviews are in Variety magazine, as they are written for movie professionals. And the market for reviews is largely efficient. That is, if you read six smart critics on a movie — usually just two or three in fact — you will have a good idea of the quality of the movie. But you must put aside movies that are politically correct or culturally iconic, as they tend to be overrated. Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate will make plenty of “best of” lists, and they are both interesting and extremely important for both cinematic and cultural reasons. Still, I would not say either is a great movie, though they have some wonderful scenes and themes.

6. Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too. Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc. There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction. Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.

7. I still think Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, while good, are overrated. Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one. In addition, a lot of movies are made to be seen only once, so don’t hold that against them. For instance, I am not sure I need to see the opening sequence of Private Ryan again, but I am very glad I saw it once. It made seeing the whole movie worthwhile, but since most of the rest is ordinary, albeit serviceable, seeing it again would be excruciating.

8. It is a mistake to smugly assume that television has surpassed movies. The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.

I especially agree with 1, 2, 6, and 8.

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