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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.

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

Joe Swanberg’s Keynote at SXSW on his indie film career and financing his films

I enjoyed this one just as much as the one with Mark Duplass. I really love Joe’s films and while I don’t necessarily work in his style or want to make similar films, I’ve learned a lot from his DIY career approach and the way that he’s making a living as  a filmmaker without giving up creative control.

Wide-angle close ups and the Coen brothers

I’ve watched this EFIAP about eight times now. I watched it about a week before production on The Deadline started and I sent it to Nick the DP and he was like “oh man, I just watched that too!” So we ended up stealing the idea of going wide in close-ups and I’m really happy with the way it came out. You really feel like you’re there with the actors.

When I watch the scene in Tony’s video where the camera changes angles on Roger Deakins, I can actually feel an emotional difference–it’s subtle and probably most people can’t tell, but I think it’s meaningful.

I also like the way they shoot from “inside the space” between the two characters. Personally I don’t like dirty close ups because they take me out of the moment. There’s something ‘off’ about a character talking while we’re looking at the back of their head, and it always takes me out of the moment.

Here’s the video:

And here are some stills from the film. They haven’t been colored yet, but you feel like you’re right there with them. At least I do!Hannah's Import Sync.00_13_01_14.Still008 Hannah's Import Sync.02_34_04_13.Still029 Robert's Import Sync.00_53_03_22.Still015 Hannah's Import Sync.01_10_01_09.Still015

 

I love this scene from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence

We are creative because everything isn’t okay (yet)

You don’t get creative once everything is okay. In fact, we are creative because everything isn’t okay (yet).

Centered and complete (Seth Godin)

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

One of my favorites from CIFF, by Chicago director Stephen Cone.

Computer Show

This series is so damn funny. Starring Rob Baedeker of the extremely awesome Kaspar Hauser sketch group (seriously, go find their podcast in iTunes and listen to Mundo de Perros! and Spicy Pony Head).

Only people who don’t give a damn have style

Canseco has been described as a charmer and a clown, but in fact he is a rogue, a genuine one, and genuine rogues are rare, inside baseball and out. It’s not enough to flout the law, to be a rogue–break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat–you must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders, throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. Above all, you must do these things, as you do their opposites, for no particular reason, because you feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything’s a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified for rogues everywhere, because you do not give a damn

…and this…

We have no style, you and I; only people who don’t give a damn have style.

– “On Canseco” from Manhood For Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Really enjoyed this book. And Canseco would’ve made a good Godard character.

Why I made a web series and not… something else

I’d be lying if I said that I’m a huge fan of web series. I’m not. I’m a huge fan of some web series, but I don’t seek out or watch web series in the way I seek out and watch good TV shows of films.1

So that might be a little rule breaking. Novelists should read a lot of novels and filmmakers should watch a lot of films, right? I don’t personally know anyone that watches a lot of web series. And Words Fail Me was more of a series of short films than a serialized story, for whatever that’s worth.

But I had a few reasons for making a web series, as opposed to a short film or a feature film.

One reason is that I eventually want to make a feature film.2 I had a lot of the artistic tools necessary for writing and directing feature film, but I was lacking in production experience. In fact, this was the first thing I ever directed, aside from a few improv shows, which is a fundamentally different kind of directing (usually called coaching).

I had read a lot of blogs and several books on film production and I had been on many sets as an actor in friends’ projects, student films, and one professional set of a commercial. So I had some familiarity with the process but the best way to learn any craft is to just fucking do it and make mistakes and learn from the mistakes.

I wanted to experience the filmmaking process from start to finish, but on a smaller scale, and this was a great way to do that. You get more or less the same learning with much smaller financial and time risk. A smaller project meant I could fail faster. You get all the experiences of a bigger project, things that you might not run up against when filming a short—trying to schedule multiple locations and multiple actors and a crew, feeding everyone, and a release plan that’s pretty low-budget but still involves a fair amount of planning.

The upside is that you uncover areas of risk without putting a lot of money on the line. There are a lot of things that, when they go wrong, can ruin any filmed project, but there are also a lot of things that can go wrong without ruining the project. The goal was to identify the former, which I call fatal risks, because those are the ones you want to insure against, prevent, and avoid.

Here’s another reason, which is more more existential than practical. I had been wanting to do more video work for a while, since mid-2013 and after about a year of saying to myself and my friends that I wanted to do more of it, I finally got sick of myself talking about it and decided to just shoot something.

“Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
–William Blake

I read that quote in a great little book that I read a long time ago, called If You Want to Write.

I try to be careful about sitting around wanting to do something for too long without doing it—the risk is that I create a sort of inertia for myself. I don’t want to be in the habit of not doing what I want to do. So after I can sense the inertia building up for a bit too long, there’s like this internal pressure for me to either drop it entirely and forget about it or to just fucking do it already.

And finally, I wanted to make something that I was proud of. I wanted to look back at what we created and have it stand as something that I’d be happy to let anyone see as a sample of my work. And more personally, I wanted to be able to watch the episodes and laugh. I definitely accomplished this goal. In fact, I accomplished all the goals I set out to accomplish.

Thanks for reading and thanks for watching.


  1. Also, I the phrase “web series” annoys me. It’s cumbersome to say, especially in the plural. I digress. That’s why this is down at the bottom. 

  2. And hopefully more than one, assuming it doesn’t kill me or bankrupt me 

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