Ravaged Heads for Everyone, or, The Alchemy of Expectations

The live-reading of Sophia The Great went extremely well. Much like our experience producing Multiverse, the end-result exceeded expectations. I could get used to this.

Before I move on to sharing some notes about the experience, a word (or a thousand) about this same topic: expectation.

Historically, I have had an unhealthy relationship with expectation. Even still now, I periodically need a metaphorical slap in the face (self-inflicted, or inflicted by Rebecca) when it comes to tempering my expectations for…a certain project, a certain phase of a certain project, a certain step towards a certain phase of a certain project. I go into so much detail because…I believe the relationship between action and expectation has a particular sort of significance for an artist — though the lessons I have learned (and continue to learn) about maintaining a healthy balance, in these terms, probably translate to matters of day-to-day life as well.

To be clearer: I think my work has started to sometimes exceed my expectations because…I’ve lowered my expectations. To a degree.

To anyone waiting to pounce on such an idea (pounce away, ideas don’t feel pain, idiot) this may seem a sign of weakness. To such a person, lowered expectations might mean compromise. A lessening of The Vision. What I’m describing…it may sound like acquiescence.

And it is. I have begun to more regularly acquiesce to that voice I’ve made reference to before, that says: “You can’t do it.” Because that voice is right. None of us will ever be able to “do it” in quite the way we imagined. A lot of people are okay with this (as they should be). Too many people, probably, are too okay with this (they could try a little harder to form better expectations for themselves). But all of us, to a degree, struggle to reconcile our part in such daily transactions — between what we expect for ourselves and what we are able to realistically do. It may even be a particularly American problem, or an acutely generational one, in the terms I’m so far using. When we expect the reality of The Screen, and instead get reality itself (which, worse than failing to be clean and/or glamorous, is plagued by manmade unfairness and these days seems often arrested in a state of depressed, perpetual stasis)…the loser, in the end, is us.

Obviously, I’ve walked this road. Seemingly, I’ve decided to abandon it. So. Why and how?

Again, it’s a delicate dance. Especially for an artist. As a filmmaker in particular, I need my lofty expectations. They drive two of the most basic tools a filmmaker/artist needs in order to succeed. They provide you with enough Crazy to think that it makes sense to struggle for years for the right to enlist others to help create and/or spread your vision — that this is a reasonable idea (most times, it’s not). Additionally, high expectations can push you at times when nothing or no one else can. In independent film, especially at the level I’m at, this is almost all the time. But the idea becomes more tactile as you progress through a production, for instance — all the way to the end of the finished product, which in my case is a film. I expect this essentially false, moving snapshot I’ve created with the help of all these people — to momentarily replace reality in the minds of the audience. It’s a contradictory notion, in terms of expectation. Because for this to happen, everything needs to be perfect.

And that’s the trouble spot, when it comes to expectations. That’s where we come back around to the necessity of responsibly dealing with the inevitable letdown that comes from riding them as far as they’ll take us before we inevitably get bucked. Expectations always represent a losing hand. It’s part of the deal. Expectations aren’t human, they never tire, they rarely stop. We are human, we do tire, and we must stop — occasionally. All we can do, in the face of these truths, is learn to know our limits (after we’ve found them) and keep showing patience, as we work “tirelessly,” “endlessly,” in pursuit of a finish line we can always see, always feel, but never reach.

So, there it is. That’s where I’m at lately. To succeed in any way, we have to first admit defeat. It will never go as perfectly as you imagined.

And as long as this realization isn’t repurposed as an excuse (don’t do that), the knowledge can become liberating. I don’t know that it’s something that can really be taught, so much as understood, perhaps after a series of “failures,” but I thought this was worth mentioning. Because it’s important to me that readers understand what I also have to continually force myself to accept — that when I say my expectations were exceeded because they were lower, what I really mean to say is that my expectation that everything would go perfectly, right away, was lowered to a more healthy (but still appropriately crazy) expectation that everything go extremely well, and land in a satisfactorily elevated place, as I chase perfection during any one step, of any one phase, of any one production. Eventually. When and where it ultimately counts.

One more important point to all this is the importance of asking for and getting help. From family, friends, co-conspirators, collaborators — whoever.

The formula for an expectation, when broken down in its simplest form, is comprised of some admixture of elements from within yourself, combined chemically by you only in the abstract. To be made energetic, it must necessarily be broken back down into the stuff that makes up your expectation, so that these elements may be distributed through the world around you that are seeking to affect (whatever size that world may be). This requires you to take measure of that world, so that you know exactly how much energy to exert and how to appropriately handle it and when.

To do this, you need help. In externalizing our expectations, if we ever do, we are opened up. The aforementioned process necessitates this vulnerability, just as the unbearable complexity and exhaustiveness of it necessitates assistance.

The alchemy of creating an external event that elicits an emotional response (I’m still speaking mostly in artistic terms, so let’s say we’re talking about a shot, a scene, a film) is too monumental a task for an individual. Distributing its parts, after the idea has been formed within you, so that they may be turned tactile and enter the world, assembling those parts once this is accomplished — all of this represents an overwhelmingly heavy and complex set of tasks. It’s too much for one person, or a handful of people, to accomplish on their own. Not to mention the fact that an expectation is built from ideas, which have a habit of acting less like puzzle pieces and more like viruses once they’re passed around — if they’re strong ideas. Strong ideas breed more (sometimes loftier) expectations. This is how it should be.

Finally, to “complete” the process, you must recombine the ideas that formed the expectation that spawned more ideas that together became The Task. I’ve tried handling this step (mostly) alone before. It doesn’t work. I tried it, and it unhinged me. For years. The work also suffered. Which made the failure all the more devastating.

Bringing the discussion back onto the ground level, I’d like to thank Rebecca, for co-producing the reading of Sophia The Great in her spare time, at the same time that she was taking Sophia as a character very seriously in preparation for the event itself (and Sophia The Character is not a wee little bunny). I’d like to thank all the actors and audience members who donated their time to help us pursue perfection with this script and project. Perhaps you had no idea that the aforementioned process had already ravaged my head. That we were taking it so very seriously. Or perhaps a similar process was ravaging your head. I hope so. This is why we do it. The goal is more ravaged heads. Ravaged heads for everyone.

So, finally, the important question. What did we learn?

  • I learned that I am better at receiving notes and taking feedback than I have ever been in my entire life. I pat myself on the back for this. Not only was I able to listen to critiques of certain aspects/elements of the script, I was able to parse such feedback in such a way as to separate notes into three piles: 1) THANK YOU, BUT THAT IS GOING TO STAY THE SAME, 2) YOU’RE RIGHT, THAT NEEDS ATTENTION, 3) YOU’RE NOT RIGHT, BUT YOU’RE NOT WRONG, THAT NEEDS ATTENTION. From what I can tell from the testimony of other professional writers: this is crucial. Glad to have finally gotten to this point. “It was not easy,” says my ego. Then my ego goes back to his whiskey corner. Or he doesn’t get any supper.
  • I learned that my fears about how the content of the script might be received, were exaggerated by my head and at least partially unfounded. Of course, we only had a small crowd. Counting the actors (who always give useful feedback, in the questions they ask while attempting to get into character, and then frequently after the fact as audience members as well) and the number of invited audience members who showed up, I think we had about 20 people in attendance. I was pretty focused on the actors for most of the reading, but there were more than a few moments when I felt like everyone was paying Very Close Attention. We also got quite a few laughs, which was encouraging. It’s not that I don’t think parts of the script are funny, it’s just that they come from the side of funny that lives on the border of Sad Town. Not only did all this feel great, because many parts of the script seemed to be working, but it was great seeing the actors make the words their own. Something I didn’t anticipate happening (because I was too busy in the leading weeks to think about it) was that, unlike on a shoot (where I am responsible for everything, for every second of every day), at the reading, once it all started — I was able to sit back and be a part of the audience. Valuable stuff.
  • I need help. We (Rebecca and I) need help. As indicated by the paragraphs above, we have learned this lesson already. Still, in the indie game, especially after you’ve been doing it awhile, and more so because of the urgency tasks take on when you’re juggling them between day jobs and regular life — it gets easy to forget. That we all need help. That it’s okay, and often necessary, to ask for help. Suffice to say, it was a little exhausting getting the reading set up. It was exhausting because we’re still working on Multiverse. It was exhausting because we’re also in the early stages of figuring out how to get Sophia The Production kicked off at the same time. It was exhausting because it took writing this post to remind me that everything I wrote about in the paragraphs above…that these lessons need to be constantly considered and learned from…not just recognized on one happy occasion and put away in a drawer. So this becomes our next and newest task, on a couple of fronts. I will be going it alone for a bit longer, with some help from Rebecca, while we prep the next draft of the script. Then we call for help. Oh, but if you have some help laying around, let us know.
  • I learned that I am on the right track. Artistically. More work needs to be done, much more work. But, as I mentioned, there were a few moments during the reading where our actors took over The Words and gave them life and then…the room went still. Quiet. We were arrested — me along with everyone else. There’s no greater feeling in the world. I’ve only ever felt it a few times before, for a few beautiful moments, when Sex and Justice was playing on the big screen and The Drama was coming and people were still and attentive and they cared. Again…this is why we do it.
  • I learned, with stunning clarity and finality, what I have long suspected but could never quite fully believe until now — that I can’t do anything but this. Months upon years of expectation, hard work, collaboration, alchemy. For the privilege of a just a few transcendent moments. That is what we’re chasing. This, as crazy as that sounds, is how it has to be.

This is why we do it.

michaeldibiasio

Writer and Filmmaker

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