The Videoblogs Selected for Big Vision Empty Wallet’s 2015 Distribution Lab

After the lab, we will set our sights on completing the film and gearing up for next steps.

After the lab, we will set our sights on finishing the film and gearing up for next steps.

Hey, Team #VideoblogsFilm!

Rebecca and I are excited to announce that The Videoblogs has been selected to participate in Big Vision Empty Wallet’s 2015 Distribution Lab.

From BVEW’s site:

The goal of the program is to provide producers with the tools, information, and relationships they need to secure distribution deals for their films and be prepared for distribution.  Official education partners VHX and Seed&Spark will be instrumental in educating participants so they can optimize their projects to receive lucrative distribution deals and also plan for self distribution as a means to maintain ownership and make a profit, not as a last resort.

We’re very excited for this opportunity to better prepare for the eventual distribution of the film, to work with BVEW, VHX, and Seed&Spark (and other groups and pros) on our strategy, and to meet and engage with the other lab participants.

Here’s the announcement, that includes a bit more info, and links to summaries of the other selected projects: http://bigvisionemptywallet.com/distribution.

Thank you, again and as always, for all your help with making this film happen. We’ll continue to keep you posted on our progress.

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What I Liked This Week: Vacation Edition

I was gratefully able to take a few days off last week. It was nice. My better half and I packed a few bags and headed upstate to the Hudson River Valley. Here’s a shot from a bridge in Rosendale, where we stayed.

We later sat in a beautiful  restaurant garden, facing the river while willow tree seeds snowed down upon us.

We later sat in a restaurant garden, facing this river while willow tree seeds snowed down upon us. Ate burgers.

We hiked. We climbed a mountain (without gear — it was more of a tough scramble over a bunch of fallen boulders). I got scared at a few points during the climb. We got pretty high up, and I when I looked down I could feel death staring back at me. I tried to look down less. That helped. I also had a talk with my Death Fear Voice. We’re old pals by now. We came to an understanding. I would keep climbing in exchange for the promise not to fall.

It’s funny — my wife remarked more than once that she didn’t know I was afraid of heights. I didn’t really know either. I mean, I did. But I wasn’t afraid of heights prior to my light brush with death.

Literally a week before that madness, I jumped off a cliff and into the Mediterranean. I guess maybe once you’ve had to look death a little more closely — that something can change in you. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be a soldier, or a firefighter or a cop, or even a citizen who lives in a part of the world where death can be a daily part of life. I’m pretty far removed from it most of the time (as much as any of us can be) and still it’s often a struggle to prevent Death Fear Voice from drowning out Life Affirming Voice. So, in the end, we continue the dance. For as long as it goes on.

Uh, anyway — this is meant to be a happy What I Liked This Week!

After the mountain hike, despite a fair amount of tiredness (I am not in the best physical shape, presently) we drove to a state park that had more trails and a few waterfalls. Thus begins this week’s list of what I liked.

Waterfall Napping

I took a nap by the base of the waterfall. There hadn’t been much rain, so I was able to cross a connected stream, to the other side of where the trail looped around the small lake created by the waterfall. I found a comfortable spot and dropped my hat over my eyes and fell asleep while Rebecca executed her questionable (to me) decision to go for a run. I woke up just in time to see her looking for me on the other side of the stream. It was a pretty dope nap.

The Clash on Vinyl

The AirBnB place we rented for the weekend came with a turntable and a small but very well-curated vinyl collection. I liked flipping through records with my hands, maneuvering them onto the turntable with my hands, carefully positioning the needle with my hands. I liked the manual feel of it all, obviously.

But the vinyl collection also helped to reinforce a slowed-down pace. It wasn’t annoying — was in fact nice — to have to flip an album to get to the other side of it. I listened to The Clash a lot. I had forgotten how much I love The Clash. I like the word clash.

Time Out for Love

I liked spending quality time in the woods with a loved one. Specifically, the unsuspecting loved one in the background of this well-timed selfie:

I am available for your male modeling needs.

I am available for your modeling needs. Rebecca may be a better choice, though.

Sometimes, we can get so busy in life that we take the time we spend with those closest to us (spouses, family, close friends) for granted. I’m still working on prioritizing quality time. It’s important. It’s one of those things, like exercise, that you put off for too long, and then when you do it, you wonder why you ever stopped or put it off in the first place.

We got some good news about #VideoblogsFilm while we were away, if you haven’t heard yet. Here’s more info on that.

What I Liked This Week is a weekly site  feature in which I briefly summarize three things I liked recently, that I would like to call to readers’ attention. They aren’t always recent to this week or even necessarily things. An experience can be a thing. The point is that I like them and you might, too!

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What I Liked This Week: Mental Health Edition

Zelda (showing off her Boyhood pose here) has improved my mental health by about 2,000%.

Zelda (showing off her Boyhood pose here) has improved my mental health by about 2,000 percent.

As promised in last week’s relaunch of this feature, I will be attempting to keep What I Liked This Week relatively short, from here forward. If I end up responding to something in a profoundly major way, I may break that rule again, but for now — here goes!

This wasn’t planned, but this week, the things I liked the most all fell into a single category: Mental Health.  I’m glad it shook out this way — especially because May is National Mental Health Awareness month.

Here are three things you might want to check out:

Tim Ferriss Talks About Suicide

I’m a big fan of Tim’s work, which has helped me take control of my life in many ways. Tim’s blog post, “ Some Practical Thoughts About Suicide,” is a good read. I can relate to quite a bit of what he shares. But what I like most about the piece is that it comes from a highly-visible person, with a large following of fans who often listen very seriously to what he has to say. It’s good, on a very basic level, that this is now “out there”.

The Mental Illness Happy Hour

I have been listening to comedian Paul Gilmartin’s podcast for a while now, especially after we reached out to him last year while assembling the jury for The Videoblogs Dialogue. That contest will launch soon (we’re a bit delayed) but I have especially been getting a lot out of the podcast lately and wanted to made sure readers know it’s out there.  Paul does a great job managing the process of conversing about difficult subjects in each episode, not only with guests or when speaking personally but also while reading anonymous surveys filled out by listeners “on air”.

I’m not always able to listen to the show — sometimes it gets a little too painful — but lately I’ve been listening more often and I just really appreciate that it’s out there. I also really like how funny it can be. Paul is funny on his own, but laughing at the darkness with him and his guests is frequently a great salve for me, that really helps in between other sources of relief.

More Money Towards Mental Health System in NYC

Finally, I liked seeing that the deBlasio administration in New York City is seeking to budget for and implement additional mental health services around the city.

We desperately need a better infrastructure for mental health programs (around the country). Regardless of your political leanings (mine have tumbled in recent years into a loose pile of centrist debris), once you acknowledge this fact (it’s a fact) it stands to reason that trying anything at all — is a good thing.

Trying things cost money, and requires patience. I don’t believe the government should be solely responsible for either reform or maintaining/improving our current infrastructure of mental health programs or services. I wouldn’t work so hard personally to produce art that advocates for dealing with mental health issues if I did feel that way.

Like most things on such a scale, addressing this major national issue will take a mix of solutions, probably customized to the individual. First, though, those solutions need to be available (to everyone). I know, personally, that there are non-governmental systems and groups that exist, to help people when they’re suffering. The above-two examples are free resources that don’t necessarily solve anything on their own, but do provide information, comfort and hope.

Still, in an age where politics and government appear frequently callous and ineffective, it’s nice to believe that something like this could arrive soon, to help us combat The Mental Health Crisis as well.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit me up with questions/concerns in the comments.

What I Liked This Week is a weekly site  feature in which I briefly summarize three things I liked recently, that I would like to call to readers’ attention. They aren’t always recent to this week or even necessarily things. An experience can be a thing. The point is that I like them and you might, too!

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Coffee with Creatives: Filmmaker Diane Bell

Inaugural Coffee with Creatives interviewee Diane Bell, on the set of her film Bleeding Heart, with Jessica Biel.

Inaugural Coffee with Creatives interviewee Diane Bell speaks with Jessica Biel, while on set for her film Bleeding Heart.

Welcome to the first post of a new, recurring feature here on mdibiasio.com!
To skip straight to my interview with filmmaker Diane Bell, click here.

The idea for Coffee with Creatives came to me while thinking about how to solve two problems. As I mentioned in the introduction to my previous post (the first of another “new” recurring feature), the two main goals I have come to adopt with my work here, and in general, is to push for a greater sense of interpersonal empathy and, related to that, to be a better member of the various communities of which I am part.

In addition to providing testimony about the origins and processes behind my own work, I want to more often use this space to discuss the work of others, not only in terms recommending the work itself but as a way to identify practices, resources, and workflows that might be useful to readers. Over the course of the last few years especially, I’ve met (and have formed friendships with) a lot of interesting, similarly-minded people. It’s a far cry from the pre-Multiverse days, and I’d like to keep it up.

Lately, though, with all the pressures I’ve put on myself, to finish The Videoblogs, and to keep moving in general, despite the ongoing challenges of the artistic lifestyle — it’s become difficult to get out and actually meet people (especially online friends from Twitter), even after forming general plans to do so. This, in turn, has also made it harder to commit to doing my part to build community, and to share information here, in the sort of ongoing and more useful ways that to me would be a good complement to the semi-regular essays I otherwise post in this space.

So, Coffee with Creatives is my attempt to find a way to set aside some time to hang out with some cool people, in real life (as often as possible, some virtual coffee-drinking will go on), as well as to take the opportunity during that meeting to ask questions about their lives as creatives, such that you and I can learn some things, and, perhaps, feel less alone as we struggle to create.

And, as I have said so many times before, I believe all of us are fundamentally creative.

From now on, twice per month, I will have coffee with a creative person (filmmakers, writers, musicians, visual artists, organizational professionals friendly to the arts) and interview them based on the same general list of questions as those asked below. Probably, as was the case during this first conversation, other questions will also come up, as my guest and I begin digging into details. For the beginning, especially, I will probably keep things fluid in an effort to find out what format works.

Today’s inaugural post is with Writer/Director Diane Bell, who I met on Twitter during a Seed&Spark #FilmCurious chat. We quickly became online friends, and then met briefly in person when I caught her sophomore feature, Bleeding Heart, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Diane’s first feature film (and first film, ever!), Obselidia, premiered at Sundance in 2010, where it won two awards. She’s also currently crowdfunding her third film (on Seed&Spark), and her campaign ends TODAY (May 8th). Check it out when you’re done reading, and pitch in or share the campaign if you feel so inclined.

One last quick note…

After recording my talk with Diane, it occurred to me that Coffee with Creatives may be better suited to the podcast format. Some nice back-and-forth went on at points, that I’ve mostly omitted here, because I was pressed a bit for time in getting this out, and also, for now, I think it’s more important to hear what she has to say only, without me interrupting with information about my work that you may already know or can otherwise find here later. I’ll need some additional time to source the podcast idea out, and to see if and how I could make it happen.

But I hope you enjoy the interview. It was a fun talk. Check out what Diane has to say below, and please feel free to ask a question or add your point of view in the comments.

What’s your primary mode of creative output?

 I still think of myself primarily as a writer. Specifically, a screenwriter. I also direct films.

 What are you currently working on?

The film I’m working on right now is called Of Dust and Bones and I wrote it and am intending to direct it this summer. It came to me really as a reaction to how I was feeling last year. I don’t know about you but I was feeling very depressed about the world. I go through phases. I think the world is getting less violent, overall, compared to the last century, to look on the bright side. But suddenly last year I just felt really like, “This is too much”.

diane3

Diane at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

The world was so cruel and so sick and it didn’t seem to be getting better. And in the midst of that I was also having a sort of struggle finishing my second film, Bleeding Heart, which recently premiered at Tribeca. I was really having a tough time and I was really questioning everything.

And out of that came this movie, Of Dust and Bones, which is addressing these questions, like: How do we live in a world that has this terrible problem? (Note: The main character of Diane’s film is a woman whose war-photographer husband died in Syria).  And that was the question that was driving me that I felt I had to write something about. For me, I’m definitely somebody who, the things that I write, they always come from that in a sense, like some sort of problem I see in the world that I can’t really process in my own life so I try to process it through a story. So, if all goes to plan, we’ll be shooting Of Dust and Bones in July.

What do you get the most joy out of, and/or what would others say you’re best at, not including the above? Creative or otherwise.

In life in general, I get the most joy out of being present. That is why I write and why I direct. Those things bring me joy because they allow me to access that zone of presence.

I’ve been a longtime practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, for fifteen years now, and that gives me huge joy, as does my meditation practice. And my child. Being a mother. Looking after my little guy, who has given me the greatest joy ever. Because it’s just presence. Children are just little zen masters who wake you up to what’s important in life and what really isn’t, and there’s no doubt that that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

How do you balance a commitment to presence with the reality of how hard it is to produce a film? Do you work hard to keep that goal of remaining present trickling down throughout the production?

For me, yoga definitely informs my approach to filmmaking, in terms of how the focus is on the process as opposed to the result. And during the throes of it, I’m really calm. Someone will visit me on set and say: “Wow, you’re the least stressed”. I guess I have a real clarity when I’m in that situation. I think it comes from yoga because I totally let go of the result.

Because I think, whenever we start thinking of results — that’s when we get stressed out. To me, the result, you don’t control it. You’re never in control of how it’s going to turn out. You’re not in control of how it’s going to be perceived by other people. A film can be brilliant — frequently, brilliant films come out and nobody watches them. It’s a terrible business. Twenty years later everyone acknowledges it’s a brilliant film. There’s no control over any of it.

And I think for me, the relief from that is just not being stressed, just to be focused on the process and what you’re doing. One thing at a time, in a sense.

In my last film, there were definitely challenges with some of the people I was working with. They had some very different ways of working than I did. I’m talking specifically about producers. And it was really hard. And it did push me. What it pushed me to, ultimately, was to really think hard about my process, and how I worked best, how I want to work. I said to myself, okay, this was a mistake, we have different ways of working, maybe we shouldn’t be working together. And I think when you realize that, you ask: What do I value?

For me, that clarified my own path. So I’m making a much smaller film this time because I know what’s important to me and what I want to do. I realize that some things aren’t important. How do I tell stories that I really care about? How do I get to work with people who are in a similar frame of mind, where we can push ourselves creatively to take risks — rather than minimize them, which is the typical thing in our industry.

I think that kind of distress — this is the joy of something like meditation. It can give you that little bit of distance from distress, so that you can assess it in a different way and learn. Certain stresses, you realize that they aren’t worth stressing about. And other things, maybe you say, “Well, this is something we can learn from”. None of us are perfect and we’re always going to have anxieties and difficult things on this path — because it’s a hard path. That’s the bottom line of it. It’s really hard. Sometimes I wonder why we do it. What’s the point?

For me, for each filmmaker, for every artist, you have to sit down and think. What is the point? Why are you doing it? What is it about for you? And when you realize, really, what it’s for — and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something different for different people — for me I think it’s about that process, and about accessing moments of total presence through that process.

Bizarrely, I think that’s why I do it on a personal level. To have these moments of truth. To try to capture one of those on film. To me, that’s the goal, and what keeps me at it, I think. The things that are stressing us are things we just have to look at and say: Why is this causing me stress? What can I do about it? What can I learn from it?

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced, or are currently facing, at this point in your creative career? How have you addressed (or how are you addressing) that challenge?

I think the biggest challenge has been my own doubt and fear. Especially, I see some people who are incredibly confident, and they’re twenty-two or something, and they already feel like they deserve a huge audience. And I would say I’m the total opposite of that, and started out, just, with such an enormous sense of doubt, but still also with a strange compulsion mostly towards writing.

I think I’ve always been drawn towards storytelling. But when I was growing up I didn’t know any writers or filmmakers. It was so far-fetched. It was the opposite of the culture here, which is like: “You can do it!” It was more like: “Who do you think you are”? And I feel like that sort of doubt crippled me for many years. It took a long, long time for me to sort of work through that in different ways.

I’m gaining confidence now. But it’s hard-earned. Now it comes from focusing on the film and getting rid of the noise. Because fear comes, again, when we’re thinking about the result. Thinking about how people will judge our work. What the responses will be. Instead of just thinking about the work itself and being in the flow of it.

I think that’s definitely been the biggest challenge, because once I overcame that somewhat, things blossomed and bloomed and opportunities arose and films got made. But it wasn’t until I crossed that bridge in my own head — and that was a big bridge to cross.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Scotland but I grew up in Japan, Australia and Germany. My dad worked in the rubber industry. My parents are both Scottish, from a very working class background. My dad worked for a rubber company. He started working for them when he was seventeen, and he’s a really bright guy and he ended up, when he retired, the CEO of the company.

But, when I was growing up, especially as a woman, the best you could hope for was: “Go to university and get a good job as a teacher or secretary or something like that”. There was definitely not the sort of mindset that said: “Become a writer and make movies”.

[My parents] are blown away by what I’m doing. They can’t believe it.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a creative? What did you learn from it?

I think the biggest mistake I made — and I’ve thought about this a lot over the last couple of years — I made my first film, Obselidia, completely off the grid. I made it completely out of a sense of frustration.

I had sold a script and had been hired to write two original scripts. So I was making money as a writer, but I was getting frustrated by the fact that nothing was getting made. I would see this project that “was definitely going to happen”…just fall apart. And it was totally out of my control.

Out of that I decided to make my first film and it was kind of nuts. It was a crazy thing to do. I had never directed a film before. I hadn’t even made a short film. And suddenly I was going to make a feature. I just took a leap and did it.

And we did it in such a free way. The whole way that film was made was sort of organic and amazing and it was a great experience and the process was fantastic. The end result was incredible because it went to Sundance. It had no stars in it and we made it for less than 140,000 dollars and it was this incredible thing.

So that was the smartest thing I ever did. To have this leap of faith and courage and just do something. Do it without attachment to results. Because I didn’t do it thinking it was going to get me anywhere, just that I was going to learn to make a movie.

After that, then, I got into the conventional mindset. Getting into Sundance was a great thing, and then it was a terrible thing in another way, because instead of “Let’s just make another movie” — suddenly I had a manager and an agent and started doing all these meetings and I got into this conventional head-space again.

And I remember, after Sundance, I had this other script I had written that was very much like a micro-budget movie, too, and I showed it to a couple of people and they said: “Well, you don’t want to do that, because then you’re going to be stuck in that microbudget world,” and I thought, “You’re absolutely right, I have to do something that’s more ambitious”.

So, I shelved that. And I could have made another movie right then. A year after Sundance, I could have had another movie. And i would have learned so much and would have continued to grow as an artist. Instead I got into situations of development. Exactly what I had made a movie to get out of — I was right back in there. It took me five years to make another film.

And, when I made my second film, it was all sort of conventional. I pitched the idea to someone, and they developed it with me, and then the money came from a production company and it was all done in this conventional way and I was really a director for hire on my own project. It wasn’t really my project. From day one, I felt it was developed in ways that weren’t true to my heart, but I felt like I had to deliver to the financiers. The biggest mistake is getting into that head-space of, for me — and this doesn’t apply for everybody because I think it depends on what kind of films you make, and what you’re about — but for me the biggest mistake is thinking that that conventional path is a better one.

I was in that head-space of, I would love for someone to come along and deal with all the money, and take care of all that, and I could just be an artist for the thing. Instead of, with Obselidia, where I drove, and I made it happen.

With my third film we’re doing that again. The conventional path is not where I belong. I don’t think I do my best work there. I realized the best thing for me is to create my own opportunities and make the work I was born to make, the work that’s in my heart and is true to me, and not do this other thing, which doesn’t feel authentic.

I want to keep making films. I want to get better at it. My last film, also, I learned so much. Even though the experience was a difficult one, I learned that I just want to make another movie, right now, and try to learn from that, do other things differently and learn from that. I don’t want to wait another five years and have made a film that’s not the film I wanted to make. I just want to dive right into something where we can apply the things we’ve learned, and maybe this time I’ll get closer to the truth.

What general mistake(s) do you sometimes see peers make, that you wish they’d address?

I live in Los Angeles, and I know a lot of people who want to make films. And a mistake I see repeated, over and over, is this thing where somebody will have a script, and they want to make a film, and they enter into this conventional path to making a movie. Whereas they have a path to make it micro-budget but they don’t want to do that because now they’ve got an agent who says to them, we’re going to get it to the right cast, we’re going to get it to production companies, we’re going to get a real budget, and it’s going to be huge and amazing. And I see friends, they get excited and the carrot is dangling. “We’re sending it out to Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette,” and stuff like that. So they think, “We’ll, I’m not going to do it, this micro-budget way of doing it. I’m going to hold out and keep sending it to people.”

And six months pass and they still haven’t heard back from these people and then they finally hear that those people passed, because, hey, they have a lot of offers on the table. And then a year passes and now they’re going out to other people. And two years pass. Five years pass. I’m not exaggerating. I know people who have been trying to get a certain movie off the ground for five years now. And it still hasn’t happened. And I think, if you’d just, at the beginning, had just made it.

At this point it’s five years later and sometimes they can’t even remember why they wanted to make the movie. Five years have passed. They’re in a different head-space. They love different things. They’ve written other things.

I understand, on one hand, what that is, why people continue down that path, with that carrot dangling in front of them. It does at least keep them on that particular treadmill. But, I also think: “Is that validation for your work going to come from other people?” Because I think, in a sense, that’s what they’re seeking. If you can attach some star names, you feel validated or bigger in some sense.

I just try to encourage my friends who want to make films to make films. Not to get on that treadmill where you’re going to spend years of your life trying to make a film. Trying to put it all together. That may or may not happen. And then years have passed and you still haven’t made a film. Whereas, the other path — you make it. You take power for yourself and you do it. And, no, its not with Meryl Streep or Patricia Arquette, but you can find fantastic actors, and you’ll make it, and you’ll grow from it as an artist and you’ll have that natural flow and progression we’ve been talking about. You learn from it, you move on, and you do something better.

That’s one of the mistakes that I see very often. Of course, sometimes it does come together for those people, it does work out in the end. Though very rarely, from what I see.

It kind of kills me. Just do it. If you want to make films, make films. Don’t get caught up in all that.

What are you most proud of, in your career or in life?

Immediately, what springs to mind is my family. Is that corny? It’s really true. My husband and my son — I’m just really proud of the life we’ve been able to create for ourselves and for our little guy. Nothing else matters, in a way.

This is a crowd-sourced question. What’s your process? How do you make time to work? Do you have any rituals you hold yourself to, to get things done?

I am definitely an early riser. Since I have that little guy, in particular, I wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write. I definitely believe I work best first thing in the morning. Later in the day my brains cells don’t seem to function with the same amount of clarity.

I like to create that quiet time to work, to access the subconscious in that quiet time. When I’m writing a first draft I absolutely hold to the rules: “Don’t look back”, and “Write four pages a day, minimum”. It’s just something I’ve always done, and it’s the way for me to get through things.

I find first drafts really impossible. It’s like everyone says: writing is rewriting. Until you have something to rewrite, though, you’re in trouble. So when I’m writing a first draft, that’s my rule. Four pages a day, whether that takes me half a day or an hour. It has to be four. It could be the worst four pages written, ever, in the world, and I just give myself license to write dross. The important thing is that I get them down. I really hold myself to that, when I’m doing a first draft, so it doesn’t take too long to get it out.

That’s the writing part of it. And I think I’m a terrible friend. My friends will tell you that, actually. Because when I am writing something, I disappear. I miss birthday parties. I miss everything.

I feel really lousy about it. Because, when I’m in that space, it’s like giving birth. I just have to let myself be with it. Even with what I watch and what I read, I’m really specific and particular about it when I’m working on something. It just takes over your consciousness. I can’t do social things when I’m in that mode.

It’s just focus. As much as you can dim out the noise, the better. Everything is a distraction. Get the distractions out the window.

Production is like that by necessity, I’ve found. It’s just so time-consuming. It’s just your whole life. There’s no life other than shooting, when you’re shooting. I feel like screenwriting is similar to that, in a sense. You could do other things, but energetically it doesn’t feel right.

Having a child makes you far more efficient. I look back to before I had him and I think — all that time! I wrote my second film three months after my baby was born. And he just turned three. I wrote it over the first year of his life. He would nap, and then, for forty-five minutes, I would sit down and write. It was sort of like: “Go!”

Suddenly, you view every minute like that. Having a child makes you much more efficient. Because they take up so much of your time.

Another crowd-sourced question. How do you balance the artistic lifestyle with the need to make a living?

I think it’s challenging. For me, I was lucky, in that I never expected to make a living as an artist. So I’m always in awe when I’ve managed to make it work.

Over the years I’ve learned the art of living an elegant life with very little money. I’ve kind of mastered that art. If I wanted to be rich I would have become a banker. I’ve followed the path of yoga for many years and just feel like I live an incredibly rich life without a lot of money.

Somehow, between my husband and me, we make it work every month. Certainly, we’re very far from rich. I think you have to become comfortable with uncertainty to an extent. Freelance is like that. There’s no big job security. There’s no pension. You have to be someone who is willing to embrace that. And I always have been. It’s just how I’m wired. I’ve always found the most important thing in life is to be doing what I love to do, more than earning a ton of money doing something I don’t like, so I can buy stuff I don’t really need. That’s never appealed to me.

Having said all that, it’s not always easy. It’s not. Since coming to America, unbelievably, I have made my living completely out of writing and making films. Some years have been better than others, and some have been very slim. But it has worked out and hopefully it will continue. I’m interested right now in the idea of this whole question of sustainable living. It’s very fascinating to me for artists. I’m really interested in it — we’ve talked about it a little bit — in how to use these new technologies to create a different way of life, that is not dependent upon the mainstream corporate entities that exist, and getting work from them, but going directly to audiences.

I’m curious about this whole new model that’s evolving. I should say also that I teach workshops about filmmaking and really the whole model of making your own work from start to finish. From developing a script right through to distribution. It’s really interesting, when people come to those workshops, to hear how they are making it work.

I think right now we are in this exciting place, where for artists, filmmakers like ourselves, there’s a new possibility for distributing our work that wasn’t there five years ago. I’m just at the beginning of learning how to make this new model work, but there’s a potential which has never existed, before which is really exciting.

Where can readers find more info about you and your work?

Our website is www.rebelheartfilm.com. That website sort of encapsulates a lot. There’s a page about the projects, the films, and also about the work we do to help other filmmakers.

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What I Liked This Week: The Art of Asking

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're an artist. Read on to find out why.

Highly recommend this book, especially if you’re an artist. Read on to find out why.

Preface: The Return of “WILTW”
Click here to skip straight to my recommendation of Amanda Palmer’s book: The Art of Asking

Long-time readers may recognize this “What I Liked This Week” (WILTW) category of post from when it used to be a regular feature, primarily in Year One on the old site. These type of posts were discontinued at a certain point for two main reasons. The first was time — I needed to shift energy to the creative pursuits that would follow (Multiverse, A Night Alone in My Dread, The Videoblogs, and some other stuff).

The second reason for the break was that I didn’t like how WILTW posts had shifted, over time, from a list of genuinely admired pieces of content, to a vehicle through which I could ironically judge other pieces (usually of political news) by “pretending” to like them while attacking people I disagreed with via sarcastic commentary. Thankfully, I eventually determined that this was not only a waste of energy but an impure and self-serving effort at change, which, despite many youthful missteps, has always been what this site and my work has always been about.

But that, as they say, was then.

I’ve decided to bring back WILTW because I’m in a better place now, personally, artistically, socially, emotionally. As frequent readers probably know, it’s become increasingly important to me to share anything and everything, in terms of lessons learned via research and experience, that may be of potential value to peers both present and future.

Also, over the course of creating and releasing more work over the past few years, I have come to believe that change — as far as I can effect any — can only come about, especially in our present socioeconomic environment, in two ways.

To summarize these broadly, I believe we need to engage more deeply, more often, in: 1) Efforts to increase (or return to) greater interpersonal empathy, as well as; 2) Efforts to build and sustain genuine community. That probably isn’t a revelation to regular readers and/or friends and fans of especially my most recent work.

As far as these beliefs have come to inform content decisions on this blog…

After getting through the “worst” of the work in creating The Videoblogs, I began to feel more compelled towards living for and pursuing these sorts of engagement, more regularly, more often, while continuing to put out work.

At the moment, I’m finalizing a feature screenplay and two television scripts, which on my project calendar should take the majority of my spare time through the next several weeks. The original plan had been to relaunch WILTW then, as well as to launch an additional, spankin’ new recurring feature. I’m going to hold off on announcing that one for now, because it’s going to take a bit more upfront work to get going (but I’m excited about it and I think you’ll enjoy it). And, of course, we’re still working to complete The Videoblogs.

To keep all this manageable, new WILTW posts (and entries to the new category of post) will be geared towards quicker reads than the usual, bi-monthly essays that I otherwise post here. For WILTW, I plan to relay a short list of three or so items, with no rules as to format or form (I may decide to report on an experience, for instance), adding a few lines of context and commentary as to why I believe they may be of interest to readers and viewers of my work.

In so many words, I want to help strengthen the communities to which I belong, as I continue to strengthen myself, particularly in terms of emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth. These new features will hopefully allow me to do that more regularly, in service to others as well as myself, so watch for them soon.

Before you do that, though, I strongly recommend, especially if you’re an indie artist but definitely also if you’re an ardent fan of art in general (most of us are, whether we realize it or not) that you read the below “review” of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.

The book is good. So good, that I couldn’t wait to relaunch WILTW, and am devoting this whole (obviously not short) post to it — in gleeful defiance of much of what I just wrote.

Why Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is Essential Reading

I am stingy with the word essential.

It and so many similarly strong words, especially in American popular culture today, are wildly overused, and too often leveraged outside the narrow subjectivity with which (in my opinion) they could otherwise more appropriately be applied. I’d call all this an epic bummer, but in honesty it’s an easy thing to shrug off.

Still, I bring up the point to help introduce my recommendation of musician Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking…because rarely have I felt so compelled to “drop the e-word”, with confidence, outside the realm of eating, drinking, sleeping, and luvvvvv-making.

Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with my choice. But, speaking primarily to the aforementioned audience(s) of art-makers and art-lovers, here are my personal reasons for advocating for the book — and Palmer herself, since she’s an interesting personality on her own and identifies first and foremost as a singer (I have been also listening been listening to her music for weeks, which I similarly recommend).

The Art of Asking provides an unparalleled level of context for the contemporary relationship between art and people (or art and life)

liam_sscamp

We raised enough money to shoot The Videoblogs by asking our audience for help. Photo credit: Liam Billingham.

Early in the text, Palmer remarks upon how what we’re witnessing right now, in terms of the relationship between art and artist (especially in tech-equipped indie circles) is in actuality a return to The Way it Used to Be. Artists create, put their work (and themselves) out there, and the audience returns the favor by giving some part of their own selves (be it in the form of money, time, etc.), simply and directly — if and as there’s an authentic connection made in the process.

That’s how it used to go early on, and for a long time, in human history. Various forms of progress and change shifted that relationship, such that several intermediary systems rose to prominence, which weren’t (and aren’t) necessarily bad but, nonetheless, today, can cause complications, introduce impurities, and/or create distance in the otherwise mostly direct artist-audience relationship. Today, now that individuals on the whole are much more broadly and immediately connected than ever before, and now that new (relatively) cheap funding, distribution, and communications systems exist than ever before, it’s not only once again possible for the artist and the audience to remain in a more direct, on-going relationship — it’s also easier to cultivate and keep up that relationship than ever before.

That doesn’t mean that, on the part of both artist and audience, that we aren’t still (on the negative side) facing challenges posed by the still-dominant machinations and gate-keeping fears of the aforementioned intermediaries, or (on the positive side), that there aren’t mutual advantages to those sort of relationships (and plenty of good people working, in various capacities, for intermediaries) — it just means that everyone today can perhaps be kept more honest and more focused on what’s important.

I’m paraphrasing Palmer there, possibly with a little bit of my own beliefs and observations sprinkled in, but the important point is to recognize and accept that, with the right attitude and a lot of work and patience, things can be better — for independent artists and their audiences in particular.

Within this context, Palmer embodies (literally) and carefully guards Authenticity and Trust as the most crucial elements of the artist-audience relationship

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films.

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

The Art of Asking is mostly written in the style of a memoir. Longer-tenured admirers of Palmer than me probably already know that she doesn’t shy away from getting (literally) naked in front of her fans (given certain conditions that she takes careful pains to point out in the book, while also providing context for such decisions). Such occasions don’t always go well, her courage in this aspect does not come without its share of suffering, and in the text she frequently (and with typical transparency) gives voice to the doubts such “bad” stories spark in her mind.

Still, Palmer does a much better job than I ever could ultimately deconstructing not only why such “setbacks” (I’ll let the book itself substantiate my repeated use of scare quotes) are necessary (and illuminating). She provides much evidence for — and a lot of useful commentary on — the observable truth that, after opportunity, the next thing we all need for this sort of arrangement to work, in the best possible way, is an unyielding commitment to trust not only in the work but each other.

Palmer never claims that things will always go perfectly, even in filling in useful back-story to her successes. But she does do an excellent job consistently reporting on the dialogues she has had both with herself and trusted friends in sourcing out the right thing to do, as often as possible, as she stumbled through especially her early career on the way to a better and more comprehensive understanding and respect for how this all ideally might work on a regular basis. The stories she tells in relaying this process are not only intellectually accessible, but emotionally so as well — which sets Palmer apart especially in today’s unfortunately less-emotionally forthcoming social landscape.

Palmer’s narrative provides an accessible road-map for success

Multiverse Screening and Videoblog kickoff

Hint: It’s about People. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

Riding off that last point, it can be tempting in this environment (I’ve been tempted myself) to take an honest goal like that of Palmer’s book (which to me seemed to be: “teach and attest to the benefits of trust, kindness, and vulnerability”) and warp it into something more broad and self-serving.

Especially in what sometimes seems to be rounding out into The Age of Tech, advice of the “road-map” sort, nudged towards gathering greater numbers (versus forming real connections), seems to proliferate further every day.

That’s not to say that all the lists and guides out there aren’t without value, or that they’re all guilty of crossing some arbitrary Authenticity Line, or should be faulted for failing to see that most of what provides value to people begins by engaging with them on an honest, emotional level. It just means that, for instance, when Palmer maps out her path as herself, in context, while constantly guarding and respecting The Point — it becomes that much easier for a similarly minded, or near-similarly minded (I’ll probably never get physically naked for you) individual or small group to internalize her journey and absorb her lessons in a much more useful way.

This road-map is revealed to be (and simultaneously evidenced by) the aforementioned Authenticity and Trust

This is indie musician Mike O'Malley -- in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

This is indie musician Mike O’Malley — in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

Obviously, I admire Palmer’s approach with the book, and her execution, as much as the content. I bring the sort of cyclical nature of her testimony up as a separate point because of how accurately it mirrors how important both authenticity and trust are to the artistic lifestyle (or to living a fulfilled life in general).

It took me so long to build up the courage to begin sharing more and more of my actual self in my work. As documented here, it’s also been frequently terrifying, sharing more and more of that work, more widely.

I’m eternally grateful for my audience. I hope you know that. I hope you also know how essential you have been (continue to be) to my work and my own growth. We’re in this together. I’ll keep trying to keep it honest.

For anyone still struggling to build up the courage to start down a similar path, or who could use a boost (I needed one) — read The Art of Asking.

Palmer makes it clear that indie success takes not only talent but (a fuck-ton of) hard work

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.

I held about six positions on the crew of The Videoblogs. Why? Had to be done in order to keep things moving.

While this definitely isn’t a criticism, Palmer often speeds quickly through commentary about how much work things took, at many different stages in her career. She seems to take it as a given — which really isn’t a bad thing, for the most part, especially since she clearly also “plays hard”.

Most of the useful stuff delivered by the book in this regard arrives while Palmer is monologuing or dialoguing with friends, not in a direct way but more often reflectively, in the wake, for instance, of first sharing an anecdote centered around a particular challenge, or a normally-occurring instance of doubt.

Again, possibly, this is because she’s just that used to the amount of work it takes to succeed in the way she has. Reflection may also be a healthier approach than the more typical American, “process and power-driven” work approach (I can tell you from experience that adopting this approach as an underfunded indie will burn you out). Her attitude appears gentler, more patient, and more directly caring or forgiving of how hard it can be than someone like me, who might allow lingering faulty programming to relay a similar lesson via more a blunt admonition like “you better be ready to work”.

That caution is in fact true, but because Palmer is so forthcoming and thorough in her testimony, she doesn’t have to address the reader so directly in these terms. As I said, she does detail her struggles, and it does become very clear how hard she works — in the book this all just happens in the process of her telling her story.

Especially to today’s entitlement-prone younger generations, her approach provides not only a valuable lesson but a valuable method of delivering that lesson.

The book does not shy away from pain, even in mostly relaying stories of wonder

This is actually just the result of cooking some beets. But it could be BLUD!

This is actually just a result of cutting some beets. BUT IT COULD BE BLUD!

I hinted at this above, but it’s worth mentioning more specifically.

One of my favorite recurring patterns in the book is Palmer’s willingness to share the bad with the good. She utilizes the space provided by her narrative, in addition to whatever she did in the moment (usually talking to a friend), to find a way to come to terms with why pain is part of the artistic process, just as it is part of the process of living.

Again speaking personally, I’d add that this is a hard lesson to learn, and one that arguably never stops asserting itself. Still, I have found in recent years that doing exactly what Palmer does — talking and sharing and avoiding isolation or self-pity as often as possible — works wonders.

I believe it’s particularly important that we exhibit patience throughout each instance/cycle of this process as well.

The pain of others screams at us, every day, from the headlines, in real life, and even on our social media feeds. As artists (and as people), it can be hard to remember that our job isn’t only to absorb and soothe such pain. Neither does it help anyone to focus solely on ourselves, in this respect.

The healing comes from the sharing, and the connection.

The central narrative isn’t just the titular subject, or Palmer herself, but the vulnerability and love that must be shown in order for art, and art-relationships, to work in today’s socioeconomic environment

Laughter without voices.

At the time we made Multiverse, I was struggling to see people — and to feel seen.

Long-time readers of this site are probably used to me harping on the following point — but I’m going to keep repeating it for as long as I feel it still needs to be made.

More than any other crisis we’re facing, here and now in America, the gap or decline in empathy — between any of a number of (sometimes arbitrarily) defined groups, and within and across the individuals that make up those groups — seems to me to be hurting us the most.

Empathy is the basis from which all progress begins. Even when it seems incomplete, even when finding it seems to take forever, any progress on this front, at any level — is good for everyone.

No matter what sort of progress or social change an artist or an individual is compelled to chase, empathy will always be the most powerful vehicle we can “employ”. It is that authenticity, that trust, that connection — all wrapped up into one mysterious-but-essential universal concept.

I use the scare quotes around the word ’employ’ there, because (especially now that I’ve absorbed Palmer’s book), I believe it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as vessels, in this respect, than as an agent.

Conclusion: How The Art of Asking has Affected Me

Things get intense during Margaret (Rebecca De Ornelas) and Vee's (Phoebe Allegra) first meeting.

The Videoblogs is about leaving isolation behind, opening up — and trying to connect.

I’ve written quite a bit, so I’ll wrap up, but in support of that last point I wanted to end with some personal testimony on how The Art of Asking has affected me on a personal level.

First, as I mentioned, it has strengthened and renewed my gratitude towards anyone who has supported one or more of my projects, who has ever visited this site, who has even taken a moment to click through to anything I’ve done and given it a quick glance. As I have said before, I simply would not be here, making art and chugging forward, without all of you.

I also emerged from my read of Palmer’s book with a greater sense of clarity, in regards not only to the worthiness of the path I am on, but also the necessity to continue to be transparent and supportive of the artistic and personal communities to which I belong.

And, finally, I have been acting with more kindness, just in general, as I have gone about my day-to-day life.

I don’t feel more kind, as a result of reading The Art of Asking. I’ve always been a fairly kind person. But reading the book — particularly at this stage in my life, wherein I’ve been putting so much effort into both “cleaning house” and being me — has helped me slow down and act upon feelings of compassion, much more often than I have otherwise done in recent years, without hesitation or judgement.

There have been plenty of available reasons, for me, in the past, to remain guarded, to follow the lead of any of a number of fears, and/or to keep barreling forward in pursuit of The Mission.

It can become especially easy (sometimes, unfortunately, even necessary) to do this while living and working in New York City. There’s just too much going on, everywhere, constantly, to remain vulnerable for too long of a stretch, or in certain environments wherein to do so at all would be potentially too damaging to the self. There are times when you simply need to establish and respecting healthy boundaries to protect your health and general happiness.

But, still, lately, I’ve been realizing (and, to be truthful, finally listening to the pleas of others in this regard) that it’s time to slow down again. The Mission isn’t a career level, or an accomplishment, or even the realization of a specific project. It’s not even the work itself, or the drive to keep doing it and sharing the result.

The Mission is serving others. It’s chasing that empathy, by showing — and showing faith in — the kindnesses we mostly all feel, but might for so many, often understandable reasons, hesitate to show.

So, I’ve been doing what I can. I’m trying to support other artists, more often. I’m trying to keep up on taking care of myself, more consistently, so that it’s easier to approach others without agenda. I’m making eye contact with strangers and asking how they are, and I think they can tell that I actually care about their response.

Mostly, I’m doing little things that take a minimal amount of effort even if they cost me a bit more in terms of vulnerability and trust. I’m realizing, as Palmer’s book and life story definitely sets out to prove, that The Art of Asking is just as much about giving — and meaning it, and being unafraid to keep on meaning it — than anything else.

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Shooting Your Own Script? Watch For These Mistakes

Woah. Photo credit: Rebecca De Ornelas.

Woah. Photo credit: Rebecca De Ornelas.

As announced (via a fun video) in my previous post, I recently completed a rough cut of The Videoblogs. In editing the film over the course of the past several months, I have observed a few things about the relationship between the script and the footage that I want to share, in case any might help other writers or filmmakers (particularly Writer/Directors) who are planning to shoot their own script or considering this option.

It’s a path I recommend, though it’s not easy, and while The Videoblogs is my first feature I have come across some of these same lessons before, while producing shorts and a featurette (try to avoid ever making a featurette). Some or most of the below are potentially even unavoidable, but I think any way we can learn from even “normal mistakes” can help lessen the scope or impact they might have on the end products (the films) in the future.

Similarly, none of these observations are new, to experienced filmmakers especially but, really, anyone with a prolonged relationship with project work. I went into the edit aware that I was going to be creating a different version of the film that was shot, which was itself different from the version that was written, which was itself the best I could do to translate thoughts and feelings and pictures that were banging around in my head…onto the page. Still I think looking back and comparing what was written to what (so far) appears to be landing in the actual film is a useful exercise for growth.

Also, The Videoblogs is as much an experiment in sourcing out (or honing) a contemporary model for quality low-budget filmmaking, as it is a sincere effort at making art and getting it out there. So another reason for taking this time to share these observations is out of the hope that they may be helpful to anyone thinking of doing the same now or in the future.

It always helps to hone a script to the point that time and money can be saved, or better directed towards the right material that will ultimately make it into the film. But in the (very) low-budget sphere, these sort of savings arguably have a larger impact — they can be the difference between pulling the whole thing off at all. More than filmmakers with higher budgets, independents need to truly maximize every second and resources in order to arrive at the best possible version of the film.

Along these lines, I think the best way to report on my findings is to direct my “advice” to someone who has a “final” draft of their script and is on their way to production — though much of the below can be considered at any time after the first two or three drafts. A lot of what I’m about the dive into is about making the script better — which is an obvious priority but not always one we’re able to face up to, even when we’re rewriting with this sincere intention, and especially in cases when the director and writer are the same person.

As a sort of aside, while getting trusted feedback during rounds of rewriting should always be part a script’s journey — in my experience it’s extra important for Writer/Directors (or Writer/Producers) to arrive at as honest an estimation of a script’s strength and weaknesses as possible, separate from your own ego, via several rounds of peer review. I’ve even realized lately (more on this below) that I still need to get better at this personally. So please understand that I include myself  — especially my younger self — in the “judgments” contained within the following two paragraphs.

To be blunt: I long lost track of the amount of times I have started watching independent films in particular (even those with a healthy scattering of festival laurels) and stopped very early on in the running time. Almost always, it’s because of “bad” writing (more accurately, unfinished or polluted rewriting). Many times, I’m left feeling like the filmmaker either isn’t a writer (if they’re directing and writing), didn’t trust or adequately challenge the writer (if they’re just directing, and collaborating with a peer) and/or didn’t do his/her project justice by seeking out tough feedback, either by going through that difficult process personally or by seeking out the opinions of peers who will challenge them (I have found that employing both strategies is best for me).

Not all advice is good, and not all advice has to or should be taken. But definitely it should be sought. And in the very low-budget, self-propelled indie sphere, no one is going to force you to chop away at your script, especially as late as the month before production — at which point everything can often feel too much like a moving train, imbuing the risk of changes with a disproportionate charge of fear. Table reads and rehearsals are a good way to start doing so, however, because good actors often have a more direct feel for what’s working on a character and dialogue level than readers, (or even some writers who are too close to the material), but I’ll get to that in a moment,

Anyway. On to it.

Watch for under-confident writing

At several points while editing, I noticed our talent struggling (valiantly) through certain scenes or parts of scenes. Their performances weren’t bad in these instances — our cast is talented and stocked with hard-working pros — but in observing these shots or sequences against others that definitely worked, I found what I believed to be the difference. It was the writing.

Rehearsal smoked out some extraneous material.

Rehearsal smoked out some (but not all) extraneous material. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

I revisited the script, upon encountering many of these scenes, and what was not clear to me before production became immediately apparent now during editing — several scenes were buttoned (at the top and bottom) with under-confident writing. I meandered sometimes on the way in to what a scene was about, and/or lingered too long on the way out if it.

Now, partially, this was a byproduct of a purposeful decision (also related to budget) to write a more conversational, real-world script. This seemed a necessity in order for our story conceit (which jumps between videoblogging and real life at many points) to work in a convincing way. However, it doesn’t change the fact that my talent couldn’t find enough of a foothold in that reality at those certain points. And a few scenes (but not too many) didn’t work altogether.

As a student of filmmaking, I know that this happens. It didn’t happen, really, with my short films. It did happen with the featurette. I think the long-form production is just a different animal in this sense, in that the stakes are higher and the demands of storytelling are greater and more complex. Sometimes, it’s just safer to shoot with a bit of breathing room. Still, again, the hope is to create as little waste as possible from production to production. Under-confidence simply doesn’t belong anywhere within a professional product. I don’t mean to suggest that we can or should stop the feelings that inform under-confidence — we just have to guard against them at every stage, in my opinion, to protect the story and the film.

In looking at these longer-than-necessary scenes on paper, it became clearer to me, after the fact, that many could have been cut down. As compared with the majority of our timeline, the cuts were minor. But some material could have been excised on a script level. I could have squeezed a little more juice out of our budget and schedule by facing up to the under-confidence that was padding the narrative. A good editor is going to cut such bloat (I try to be a good editor, even when it hurts my other heads). And, again, a good actor can’t do their job in spots where there’s no soul in the words — though a kind one will try.

Thankfully, none of this was so bad that I was left very regretful about wasting time and money. Regret’s kind of a waste, in itself, anyway. I just want to do better next time.

Watch for over-confident writing

Conversely, I have also made similar cuts, moving from the script to the edited timeline, at points when the writer in me got too confident, and doubled-down on using only the words to express himself, when in fact, in a film, cameras and performances (and the edit) are going to tell the story. These scenes revealed themselves in a similar way as those weighed down by under-confident writing. They were clearly too intellectual for the talent to fully embody, because there was too much pomp in the words and not enough animus.

Lead actor Rebecca De ornelas "records a videoblog".

Some “vlog” entries remain “talky”. We continue to trim them in post. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

Arguably, this over-confidence could also be labelled as more under-confidence (dressed in nicer clothes). There are a few easy questions, that I already have learned to ask myself in drafting (but which could have asked again before shooting) that can help root out such scenes. What’s this scene about? How does it feel? Is it more about me (the writer) than the character? Should something else be here? Does this need to be here at all?

That third question is especially important. It’s hard. We can’t bring ourselves to the table, to write the thing in the first place, without putting ourselves into it. But the aim, in my opinion (and experience) needs to be directed towards the audience. That goes for trust, too. It’s important to remember viewers can (and must be) trusted. Very few people, if any, go into a narrative thinking about your (our) insecurities — but they will be taken out of the narrative if/when those insecurities manifest on screen.

A good story comes from a deeply personal place, but we’re not authentically tapping into that place at points when our words veer into what we think needs to be said. Thinking doesn’t enter the process, in this way, in my experience. Perhaps conscious thought helps with resolving issues of reason or or plot, for pondering major structural or tonal problems that are worth deliberating over, in between writing or rewriting sessions, but then things need to be turned back over (in my opinion) to the subconscious, the muse — the actual writer. The intellect can give directions, and even navigate, but shouldn’t drive the van, for the most part, when it comes to what goes on the page and stays there. I don’t know why the story is in a van. We’ll leave that to the imagination.

To be more specific on this point: I have historically had a tendency, in my writing, to speechify. Multiverse — which is very stingy on dialogue and intentionally broad and open to interpretation in story terms — and, conversely, a lot of shelved, overly-thinky previous scripts, helped a great deal in curing me of this affliction. But a few scenes (and parts of scenes) slipped into production for The Videoblogs that could have been cut. My writer’s ego thought he could sneak them past. The editor in me now scoffs — and they’re gone.

Cut jokes written for joking’s sake

While it was never a tough decision to make, it nonetheless stands that it was still a choice to move forward with a film centered at least in part around depression. We know this will continue to be challenge, heading into distribution.

The joking started in fundraising. We honestly let them keep the donuts.

The jokes started in fundraising. We honestly let them keep the donuts.

In recognition of (and respect for) this challenge however, I made it a point NOT to shy away from moments of humor in the film. The sad and the funny are closely related, and, further, making room for representations of the real humorousness with which difficult moments tend to break…felt like the right thing to do during scripting. In watching the rough cut once through since completion, this appears to have been the right move. The film’s funnier than even I expected. Much of the credit for that belongs to the cast.

Still, especially once the mood of the film begins to lighten — there were some moments when, in drafting the script, I failed to recognize (or accept) that I was disrupting flow by leaving something in “because it’s funny”. Maybe I subconsciously knew this, since, again, many of these instances appear at the bottom of scenes, or safely in between scenes that flow more seamlessly together with the joke removed, but it doesn’t change the fact that some, while funny, didn’t move the story forward or, as was the case more often, actively broke the story’s motion.

This didn’t happen very often at all, but it happened more than once, and, beyond that, jokes tend to be easy to shoot quickly (after getting adequate coverage) and they help keep things fresh on set. So I don’t think it’s essential to go to town with the red pen in this regard. Just something to watch out for.

Scrutinize (cut) expository shots and scenes

Technically, this is yet another form of under-confident writing, but it’s a little different than what I wrote above, since I made this “mistake” on a much larger story level, versus within a scene.

Pretentious Michael explains why the scene simply MUST stay.

Pretentious Michael explains why the scene simply MUST stay. Photo credit: Zach Nading.

One of our longest and hardest days of shooting involved running around the city, on foot and via the subway, with a bare-bones crew of four, for New York City exteriors. We set aside almost an entire day to grab a bunch of quick shots of lead actor Rebecca De Ornelas going back and forth to work. These were meant to be woven into a video blogging sequence as cutaways, in order to break up a pattern of similar sequences that dominate the early parts of the film.

And there, in retrospect, is the first red flag — I wrote those scenes because I was worried about isolating or losing the audience during what’s definitely still a difficult first twenty minutes or so.

The Videoblogs was always just going to be that kind of film. I’m decently sure that a small percentage of people, if and when we distribute the film beyond our core audience, are going to abandon it completely before the first ten to twenty minutes are up (despite what I’m saying, we’re still taking a close look at condensing this material as much as possible). This isn’t because the writing or the performances or the story or the footage is bad, or that we made any major mistakes — it’s just that those minutes are hard to watch. Anxiety and frustration co-mingle into teary stuff. Things get uncomfortably direct. It’s just the way this story had to go.

The exteriors, I think, were written out of a fear of this knowledge, which I think is understandable. Again — I don’t regret shooting them. And I’m still using some of the footage towards different ends.

But the main reason they didn’t work for me, when I started editing, is because they interrupted Rebecca’s work in really bringing her character’s desperate isolation to life. Especially early on, The Videoblogs isn’t meant to be framed around the reasons why the main character, Margaret, feels isolated, or even to provide a context for her mental/emotional state as a whole. Instead, we’re meant to witness (and hopefully relate to) that isolation. Bringing the camera outside of a close observation of this behavior, at all, never mind bringing outside her apartment (which she barely leaves), too frequently — it just doesn’t work.

Finally, The Videoblogs is also a film set very firmly in the neighborhood (Flatbush/Ditmas Park) in which it was conceived, produced, and shot. While Margaret, as so many Brooklynites do, works in Manhattan — this just isn’t a film that takes all of New York City as its world. There’s obviously overlap between a characterization of the city at large, and Margaret’s neighborhood, but moving her too often away from that neighborhood — even in cutaways — proved too much for most sequences. It was overkill. It only could have belonged to a different story.

In Conclusion (Steps to Take Next Time)

To be clear, all of the above, in the context of a first feature, which despite its imperfections is still (in my opinion) coming together nicely — isn’t damning. It would have been great to realize all of it earlier, as I said, to save a very slight amount of time and money. Some of this probably just needed to be learned in execution before I really believed it. I make that point, specifically, because I think there’s an opposite danger in gripping the controls too tightly, as well, before shooting. It’s better to have extra footage, and feel a tinge of after-the-fact anxiety, than to end up with not enough material to craft your story — which is a recipe for far worse feelings.

"You're going to do it again?" Probably. Ugh.

“You’re going to do this whole thing again?” Probably. Ugh.

Still, l think I will take a few extra steps, the next time around, to minimize these sort of mistakes.

We never did a reading of The Videoblogs…

…which at a certain point wasn’t going to happen within our production time frame, but I think they’re always a good idea. It’s not hard to put a reading together and I think that listening in on one, and hearing feedback, would have helped me to see (and accept) some of this stuff beforehand. It’s a cheap way to help make the film better, sooner, trading low risk (except to your ego, which could use the douse, anyway) for potentially high-rewards.

Reach out to trusted next-level peers

On a related note, next time I will work to have a few trusted, last-pass readers available to offer feedback on my “final draft” (the draft that’s going into production). I always seek review several times throughout the life of a script, but I think I could have added one or two more experienced people to the mix this time, later in the game — if only out of respect for the newness of the endeavor. Specifically, I could been more bold about seeking feedback from writers and filmmakers that are one step ahead of me in career experience (though we’re working to correct this now, with the rough cut). On that note, please feel free to get in touch with me in the future if you’re several months from production on an indie feature and have further questions that I may be able to help answer (after having done it once).

Finally — and this is a lesson that I’m reminded of after every film I’ve ever made — to accomplish all of the above (especially on a slim budget) I want to add it would have helped the film (and script) to have lengthened the production schedule by getting started even earlier than we did.

We started WAY early, because we had high ambitions for the project and literally zero resources other than time and stupid guts (we crowdfunded our entire $20K budget, some of which was spent up front on credit cards during “development”), but we could have streamlined the first feature experience by starting even earlier. Time only gets more costly, the closer you get to shooting. There’s something to be said for deadline, and for the momentum that just starting brings. I wouldn’t change much of what we did. I’d just pay more respect to the breadth and scope of the endeavor that, for almost all of us, not only was conducted on the cheap but in between and around day jobs.

So, I hope all that helps anyone planning to produce their own script soon. While I focused on The Videoblogs as an example, I think some of the mistakes I made would arguably cost a production double on a short — especially a higher-budget “all or nothing” short (as opposed to one which is more low-budget and experimental).

I’m happy to answer any broad questions anyone might have in the comments (or on Twitter), and other creatives should definitely feel free to include any additional lessons you may have learned by which the rest of us may also benefit. Thanks for reading and good luck.

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