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Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

From The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard W. Hamming, via Marginal Revolution.

I never thought about it this way, in terms of compound interest, but I have felt that there was an advantage to writing every day for an hour, that it was much more effective than writing only a couple times a week or just writing when “inspiration” (hah) strikes.

The hardest and in my opinion, most important, part of filmmaking is the script (improvised work aside), so it makes sense to me that that’s where you would want to focus your most precious energy and time, day in and day out, because that’s where the biggest returns will be. The ratio of (indie) films with good production value but poor writing to great scripts with poor production value is very high in my opinion. This seems somewhat backwards to me, as production value costs a lot of money but writing costs only time and most of us are broke or don’t have access to a lot of money, but we can all squeeze out an hour a day to write, if we look hard enough. Not that I’ve written anything great yet.

“If I were wrong in the script, then that’d be as wrong as I could be”

I must say that I’ve never approached a project without fear – especially the writing aspect of it – and commitment to the writing. I always felt I could know a bad performance from a good performance or fake a way to make something look good, but if I were wrong in the script, then that’d be as wrong as I could be.

Francis Ford Coppola via Heidi Saman

I’m in love with Heidi’s Tumblr and her feature debut, Namour, which I was able to catch at The Gene Siskel earlier this year.

“The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair”

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.

Sarah Manguso via Austin Kleon.

And the purpose of being a non-serious writer too?

How to create your own work (as an actor)

Last month I was on a panel about Off Book with the co-star, Mindy Fay Parks, at the Chicago Acting in Film Meetup (CAFM) to talk about Off Book.

The main thrust of the conversation was about actors producing their own work. The conventional wisdom right now is that if actors aren’t getting the kind of work that they want to be getting, they should produce make a web series or a short film to highlight themselves.

This is a great idea.

As an actor, I was always hoping that someone else would see potential in me, cast me, etc. There’s a lot more responsibility as a writer/director/producer, but at least you’re in the driver’s seat. You don’t have to wait for other people to choose you, you can choose yourself.

Caveats, or why I think this advice should be qualified with additional, more nuanced advice

“Create your own work!” usually implies that actors should go out and start writing scripts, which I think should be qualified a bit. Sometimes actors sit down and write something great (like Eric & Mindy with Off Book), but most actors are not (good) writers.

I don’t mean that they lack the ability to become good writers, I mean that they have spent many years honing their craft as actors and much less time or no time at all honing their craft as writers.1

I think it’s unreasonable to expect all great actors to also be great writers. I mean, they’re completely different skills. Some people can do both but most people do one better than the other. I think it’s ridiculous to allow your acting potential to be limited by your writing talent and skill. Is Meryl Streep a great writer? I don’t know and it shouldn’t matter.

What’s your point?

My point is that if you’re an actor and you want to produce your own work, you don’t have to write it. If you think like a producer, you’ll see that there are a lot of options for bringing together a project that will highlight your talents:

  1. Write a script yourself or with a partner.
  2. Find a short play that you love and option the rights to it or buy it outright and adapt it to the screen.
  3. Find a writer to write a script for you.
  4. Acquire rights to an existing screenplay.
  5. Find a writer/director and offer to produce their next film if they cast you in it.
  6. Probably other options that I haven’t thought of.

I already covered #1 so I’ll go through the other options. I’m assuming that we’re talking about a short film here, but this also applies to features or web series.

Acquiring rights to a short play

If I were going this route, I would go to all of the short play festivals and readings in my city until I found one that I really loved and had a role that fit me. Then I would approach the writer and ask if they’ve ever thought about adapting it for the screen (with a lead role for myself).

In exchange, I would produce it (more on producing below). Most unknown playwrights would be interested in this proposition. Even somewhat well-known playwrights would be interested in this if they haven’t done a lot of screen work.

You could also inquire at local playwright incubators in your city, or even online, and ask to read the scripts of playwrights. In Chicago, I would look at Chicago Dramatists as a starting place.

Finding a writer

Similar to the option above, I would go to a lot of stage shows with original work and find a writer whose work I loved. The only difference is that I would approach them about writing something original for me, instead of adapting an existing property.

In exchange, I would offer to produce the film.

Acquire the rights to an existing screenplay

In this case, you’re finding a script somewhere from a screenwriter and either paying them for the script or offering to collaborate with them. I would go to local screenwriting meetups or find local films that had been written by someone other than the director. I have a producer friend who found a script this way on Reddit.

A tangent about actors interacting with directors in public

Before I get to item #5, I’m about to go on a tangent about actors interacting with directors. Skip it if you want.

The way actors (often) try to ‘network’ with directors is by meeting them at meetups and trying to cozy up to them in hopes of getting cast in something. There’s nothing inherently bad about this, although it can make directors uncomfortable if you’re too pushy about it. And sometimes it works — if I meet an actor while I’m in the middle of casting and they’re in the range of what I’m looking for, I will invite them to audition.

Personally, I love meeting actors and will check out their work and jot their name down after meeting them if I think they might be a good fit for a future project.

So while I wouldn’t discourage actors from being friendly with directors, I would say it’s much better to: a) invite them to your shows and comp them so they can see, for free, your talent, or b) become friends with them first in an organic way by inviting them to parties or whatever on a friend level without any hint of expectations or desperation, or c) buy them coffee and ask for their advice because everyone loves to be asked for their advice and sometimes when they go too long without being asked for their advice, they do things like write really long blog posts about it, but I digress.

So why is the normal approach not very good?

First of all, if I meet an actor, I have no idea if they’re any good. That’s why I recommend inviting them to see a show you’re in.

Second, if you’re too aggressive, it feels fake.

And third — you want to make a film RIGHT NOW, not in a year when maybe the director will remember you when he or she is working on their next project. Create your future, etc.

OK, tangent over.

Approaching a writer/director

Here’s what I would do. I would go online and find any local film writer/directors and watch their films. If I couldn’t find their films online, I would try to email or tweet them and ask them where I can find it online. I would go to all the film screenings and festivals and meet directors there.

Then, instead of saying “hi! I’m an actor!” and handing them a headshot or a business card or refrigerator magnet with my face on it, I would tell them that I really enjoyed their film and ask them for their card so I can check out their other work online.

And I would ask all my actor friends to tell me about indie directors that they liked working with or who are doing great stuff.

Then, when I found someone that I was interested in working with, I would approach them with a real proposition. I would say something like “I’m an actor and producer and I’m looking for a collaborator for my next project. I really liked [movie that they made] and I think we have a similar sensibility. To be more specific, I don’t have a script in place yet, but I would be interesting in developing a project with you (I would produce and raise the money). Would you be interested in getting coffee to see if we would be a good match?”

This is so much better than handing out your headshots because you’re coming from a place of agency. You’re not begging them to cast you in something, you’re approaching them as a collaborator who will, most importantly, bring something very valuable to the table. This also works when you already have a script and you need to hire a director to realize it.

What value are you bringing to the table? You’re going to produce.

Producing

I recently read a post by the marketing teacher/blogger Seth Godin, called The bingo method:

You might need help to turn an idea into a project.

Most of the time, though, project developers walk up to those that might help and say, “I have a glimmer of an idea, will you help me?”

The challenge: It’s too challenging. Open-ended. To offer to help means to take on too much. And of course people are hesitant to sign on for an unlimited obligation to help with something that’s important to you, not to them.

If we apply Seth’s metaphor to filmmaking, there are four basic squares on the bingo card that need to be filled in:

  • A script
  • Money
  • Personnel
  • Locations

In reality, there might be 200 squares to be filled in, but these are the four key ones.

If you’re just an actor, then you’ve got a lot of competition. There are a lot of actors in any big city. And if you’re reading this, then you’re probably not at a point in your career where you’ve distinguished yourself enough to be in high demand. Or you’re in high demand but not for the kind of roles you want to play, however financially rewarding a national Budweiser spot or guest victim on Chicago PD might be.

So, if you were to approach me as just an actor and say “hey, I’m a good actor, can I be in your next film?” the chances are that I’m not going to put all of my current projects aside to produce, raise money, and write a script that will make you look great. I’m going to keep working on my own stuff.

However, the conversation changes if you bring more than yourself to the table. Because the hardest things about indie filmmaking are a) raising money and b) producing.

By producing, I mean handing the hiring of personnel, scouting locations, filing SAG paperwork, preparing releases, arranging for meal delivery, etc.

I fucking hate doing that work.

I do it for my own projects because the pain of working 8 hours at my day job and then coming home to fill out SAG paperwork and correspond with agents and location owners and insurance brokers and rental houses and create schedules and update spreadsheets with too many rows for 5 hours is less than the pain of not making films.

It’s not a labor of love, it’s a pain in the ass that is necessary to get to rehearsal and set and do the creative stuff that I love.

So. If you approached me (or another writer/director) with either the willingness to produce or with money (or the necessary work to raise money via crowdfunding), then I would really really want to talk to you and hear what you have to say.

In the case of Off Book, I was very busy at the time with The Deadline and was up front with Mindy and Eric. I told them that I wouldn’t have time to be a producer on the project or to help raise money and they were OK with that. They also had a script in place. The script needed some rewriting but the concept was great and most of the structure was in place. We just had to polish it a bit and work on the ending. While I did take a short break from my existing projects, I didn’t have to put them on hold for a whole year.

And if any one of the bingo squares is particularly strong, then you need fewer squares or the other squares can be weaker. For example, if you said “I have $50k to shoot a feature film starring myself, but I have no script” then I would say “DON’T WORRY, I WILL WRITE ONE.”

And I know you probably don’t have $50k lying around but you might have $2k lying around or a credit card with a $3k limit or a lot of friends and family that would donate to a crowdfunding campaign. Raising money for a web series or short film isn’t easy but I have plenty of friends that have raised $5k via crowdfunding without being famous or having huge networks or going viral. It’s a lot of work but it’s in the realm of possibility.2

And you don’t have to do all the producing on your own. You can find someone to help you. The important part is that you’re going to lead the project to completion, whether by doing to work yourself or finding friends or experienced people to help you. You are the project manager. You are the person who wakes up every morning with the job of making sure that the film gets made.

In my opinion, raising money and producing are a lot easier than writing a great script. In Chicago, you can take a class on producing that will teach you all the basics. And you can learn a lot by bringing someone with experience onto the project as an AD or an associate producer or just and adviser.

I realize that I haven’t said anything about how to actually produce a film, so I’m going to write another blog post soon that gets into the nuts and bolts of that process.

I hope this helps. If you want to hear from me when the aforementioned films get released, you can subscribe to my newsletter.

 


  1. This tends to be less the case with actors that come from the sketch and improv world because, at least in Chicago, almost all the comedy people also write and produce their own sketch shows. 

  2. Check out Seed&Spark’s free Crowdfunding for Independence tutorials for guidance. 

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.

 

In your head, on the page

Most people think they’re pretty good singers. This has something to do with the way your voice resonates inside your skull. It’s a lie born in our bone structure. And that’s why when you hear your voice played back from a recording it’s pretty shocking. The truth is most people aren’t good singers. Most people are bad singers. And the same principle applies to our ideas. Things usually sound great inside our heads. So it can be a huge disappointment to see them on the page, out there in the real world. Suddenly they don’t sound so clever or as interesting or as intelligent. Suddenly, they sound dumb. This is a good thing. People become better singers by forcing themselves to sing. And facing your bad ideas is how you make them good ideas. But you have to get them out there first. You have to write them down.

Why Filmmakers Should Write Often. Maybe Every Day (Musicbed)

Every day in my opinion. but that’s just me.

An app for tracking your daily writing streak

Inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to developing a daily writing habit, I made a little web app that tracks your daily writing streak. Just a fun side project as I learn more about how to build websites, but it actually works. Check it out if you try to write every day and find that it’s hard to keep up.

Burglars

There’s something in the kitchen, you wake up in the middle of the night, you hear something stirring, in your kitchen you see five burglars, uninvited guests, how they got in you don’t know, through the window, through the door, through the basement you don’t know. One of them comes swinging wildly at you, so you better deal with that one first.

— Herzog on writing, from his Masterclass

The cardinal sin is dullness

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.

Frank Capra

The identity gap

There’s a famous quote by Ira Glass that’s had a healthy life on the inspiration-for-creative-people circuit on the internet:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

I cut it off at the end but you get the gist. It’s a good observation and resonated with me enough that I printed it out and put it on my wall next to my desk a few years ago.

Then I had a thought the other day. I’ve found a weird sense of “happiness” this summer. Quotes because I don’t really trust it, as it’s foreign to me to feel genuinely happy for no reason for what feels like weeks now.

Naturally, I asked “what the fuck is going on?”

For Glass, the gap is primarily between how good your work (1) is now and how good the work of your heroes is. The gap between your work and the work that meets your standards of taste. Let’s call it the taste gap.

But I think there’s another level to this that Glass doesn’t touch on, an existential gap if you will. It’s not just that you are disappointed that you haven’t gotten good enough to make something you’re proud of — it’s that you’re not yet the person that you want to be.

You set out as a writer. You write a screenplay or a novel. The first one sucks. But you are writing and so you are a writer (identity here as defined by your actions, not by telling everyone that you are a writer or whatever).

But while you are a writer, we can add a qualifier: you’re a mediocre writer. Or a bad writer. A novice writer. A shitty writer. Whatever. I’m not saying this to be mean; it’s important to be honest with ourselves so we can get better.

And so the gap is more than a gap between the current quality of your work and the desired quality. It’s a gap in your identity, a gap between who you are today and how you want to see yourself (and how you want other people to see you). The gap creates a tension in you, or maybe a dissonance.

The feeling is experienced as an oft-present internal pressure or anxiety. You might have to walk around through life for years carrying this tension in you. That’s quite the mental burden and hence you seek out quotes like Glass’s to soothe the pain or you risk paralysis or getting torn up inside until you can’t go on. It’s probably what makes a lot of people give up, even in the face of countless inspirational “don’t give up!!” narratives.(2)

The existential terror of this is heightened because there’s no assurance that you will actually cross the gap and become a good writer or artist or actor or whatever. Odds are that you won’t.(3)

So what happened to me? I wrote and directed a film that I’m proud of. I think it’s good. People whose opinions I respect think it’s good. 99% of people might think it’s not good, but I’m proud of it and my friends like it. For me, that’s enough to cross the gap — it feels like a win and so it is a win. Not that it will find commercial success or even critical success, but it’s a win in that it’s helped me become whole by crossing the gap. I made good on my identity.

I called myself a filmmaker and now that I’ve made something that I’m proud of, the dissonance between what I call myself and how I feel about myself is resolved. Thus, happiness.

Why focus on the identity aspect?

I was thinking about another pursuit in my life where I am woefully worse than I would like to be: tennis.

I’m not comparing myself to Roger Federer, I’m comparing myself to the people I play with that are really good but nowhere close to being professionals. The gap is achievable in my lifetime and maybe in 3-5 years with regular lessons and practice. But I experience zero anxiety about this gap because it’s not something I claim as part of my identity. I think of myself as someone who happens to play tennis, not as a tennis player. I don’t care how the world views my tennis playing so I don’t feel a gap.

What’s the difference?

I mean, if we define identity by what we do, then tennis should define me as much as filmmaking. For me, it’s about a deeper pull I feel towards filmmaking or artistic expression. I don’t really understand the difference except that maybe I chose artistic expression and not tennis to be a part of my identity.

There’s some logical inconsistency there and I’m not really sure how to think about it yet.


  1. Work here as shorthand for art, craft, tennis, whatever you’re trying to get better at 

  2. Those narratives suffer from survivor bias. Nobody ever tells you about how they never gave up their dream of being an actor and then found themselves at 50, bitter and broke. Not because it doesn’t happen, but because those people don’t get invited to write books and speak, unless of course they turned that failure into some kind of other success and the failure serves the never-give-up narrative. 

  3. I’ve failed at a few things this way and the psychic aftermath is pretty unpleasant. But don’t listen to people that say if you never give up, you’ll succeed eventually. They’re lying because they don’t know for certain anymore than you can know for certain. That’s kind of the point thought–that it’s something brave and risky because it can fail. Learning when to quit and try something else is an important skill and helps you get back up for another fight when your project fails. 

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