How to Move Your Career or Project Forward Right Now

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Greetings, Fellow Creatives! Today’s episode of the podcast is a bit of a clip show, but I think it will be very useful to longtime listeners as well as anyone new to Coffee with Creatives.

As many of you may know, I try to make a point of asking guests on Coffee with Creatives for actionable advice for anyone who is just starting out, or perhaps feeling stuck with any one project or in the career, or who is just generally on the look out for practices and tactics that might help them create and keep on creating.

That’s the goal of the show at large, and in this episode you’ll hear from some of my more popular guests in terms of:

  • One piece of advice they would offer to help you generate and realize your vision,
  • Getting your work made and/or seen,
  • Moving through fear,
  • The benefits of mindfulness,
  • And other important methods that go hand-in-hand with creating professionally.

If you enjoy this episode, here’s the full list — in order — of guests whose longer interviews are excerpted. I’ll be back in a few weeks with a new full-length interview.

Please consider sharing this episode on Twitter or Facebook if you get something out of it.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and/or support the podcast on Patreon.

Daily Progress vs. The Perfection Method

ben

 

The sun’s rising. I’m drinking my tea. There’s a blanket over my legs and the dog is curled up beside me. For now, it’s quiet.

I was wondering what I would write about today, but that seems as good a start as any. I’m content.

Another week down. More words written, both here and in my new screenplay. Yesterday remained an up-and-down day for me. My brain was in a mood. That’s okay. I got through it. I took care of myself as best I could.

I talked to some friends, and to my wife. I asked for help. I asked for help — and my penis is still attached this morning, for anyone wondering.

As I suspect it might go for many, I have a tendency to collapse into the weekend. I think the main reason I found myself battling yesterday — was because I was tired. So I rested.

And I’m keeping a closer eye on the pattern. It’s no good to burn out early. I’m worried about that result, for myself. It’s happened before. I want better, now.

There are two main characteristics to being an independent artist. The first, obviously, is the independence.

Many of us gravitate towards unbeaten paths because we’re simply drawn there, must make our own trail, for any of a number of reasons. It’s important that we do this, for others as well as ourselves. I believe that.

But then there is also the complicated part of it. The necessity towards a sometimes unsparing utilitarianism, and towards sacrifice. Lacking context or proof of our reasons for going another way — we similarly lack the resources to give any one project as good as a go as we must, without trading in on our own body and spirit.

This breaks us down, I think, slowly, over time. It’s how many artists get swallowed up, become embittered. An embittered artist is perhaps as capable of committing as much damage, in their despair, as those that their work has or would have targeted in the past. Perhaps more.

One of the friends I spoke with last night brought up the idea of sustainability, a topic I’ve discussed here and on the podcast before.

The question we pondered was whether it was better to create a little bit, each day, refining and growing naturally over time — or to work exceedingly hard to perfect one big thing, perhaps over the same amount of time but in a way wherein we might be left understandably exhausted at the end.

Having tried on both methods, now, I tend to agree with my friend — that the first might be a better fit at present. There’s a great danger, when following the perfection method, to rationalize. It’s almost necessary.

I’m doing all this work to make this perfect, but once it’s perfect, then everything will fall into place.

Except that’s not a hard and fast rule. Further, we don’t get to decide what’s perfect.

That sunrise? This cup of tea. My dog and the chill quiet morning? Maybe that’s perfect.

If I were to make a little film for you, highlighting this same combination? Sure, perhaps it would come out “nice” — but it would might never capture the feeling I got, and perhaps was conjured in you, when we started off here.

Now, that’s a convenient example. My morning ritual isn’t inherently cinematic. But anything can be cinematic, with the right amount of work, the right talent applied. I could take up the challenge and direct and shoot and edit a short film about Morning Tea. 

But the amount of work it would take to do this flawlessly? The curse of filmmaking. Which by its nature depends very heavily on The Perfection Method.

I’m not setting up any grand revelation, to be clear. I don’t plan on quitting the game. I am exhausted by the game, though. I do have to admit that I find it much more soothing to make daily progress as a writer.

And yet, the highest spikes of traffic to this site (my hub as an artist) over the past three years, have been the releases of Multiverse, The Confession, and The Videoblogs. On its own, the separate site for The Videoblogs drew twice as many visitors in a few months than this site does in an average year.

So, maybe it’s about balance. And patience. Two characteristics that are quite new to my vocabulary. For most of my life, until now, I think I’ve confused perpetual frenzy with escape velocity. I felt that if I just worked a little harder, I’d be free and on my way.

But maybe it’s not a question of escape — of leaving the planet. Maybe it’s a long slow journey, to be savored even as certain legs take us up and along arduous peaks, and down into cold, rocky valleys.

It would make sense, this more earthbound analogy. It would explain the purer accessibility of the sun and the tea and the dog in the morning. It would place The Perfection Method into some approachable, quantifiable context. Such hard journeys aren’t usually taken alone — at least not by sane people — or in quick succession.

These two main characteristics of the independent artist — the freedom to work in new ways and towards new results, and the necessity of approaching this task with what’s available — they’re obviously closely related. But perhaps one can’t be leveraged in support of the other.

More likely, they’re two legs of a stool, with patience and balance making up the remaining two legs. Removing any one leg to buttress another won’t work. It will just throw off the effectiveness of the whole thing.

More to ponder.


profpic_squareMy name is Michael. I am a Writer and Filmmaker 
of hopeful stories for complex people. Lately, I have been sharing some reflections and stories every morning. Once per month, I send a special note to those on my email list. They get exclusive stories and advanced (sometimes free) access to my work. You can join this exclusive group here. Thanks for reading.

 

How To Be Better: Perspective and Self-Compassion

if-you-want-others-to-be-happy-practice-compassion-if-you-want-to-be-happy-practice-compassion

 

I continue to think about and reflect upon balance.

It’s a tricky dance, keeping forward progress, while also respecting the creative process — all in the midst of managing daily life. We’re all called upon to do it, though, aren’t we?

Grow and thrive. Be better. Pursue happiness.

But it’s not that simple, most of the time, is it?

If I have learned anything, it has been to do less. To listen more. Still, I know it’s a hard thing to do. I have a lot of respect for everyone trying to understand or pursue something outside the everyday tasks of what we “must” do, everyone intent on personal growth and exploration. It takes courage. It takes extra work and focus.

And I admire those able to simplify. Especially in a city like New York, where stimulus is a fact of life for most hours of the day — if not immediately and temptingly accessible at any hour via subway — it’s a tall order.

Along the way of seeking balance, it has occurred to me (again) that I have been very hard on myself at points. That I have pushed myself too hard, too desperately, for too long. This observation, as regular readers might note, is nothing new.

The self-compassion I have been feeling lately, however, is new.

Caught up in the rush and the madness of life, not to mention the snares of the past, it can become easy to forget that we all deserve the opportunity to grow, thrive and be happy. It is not our fault when the circumstance of life or our social structures fail to live up to or follow up on the promises of these things.

But it does become our responsibility, to ourselves, to shift perspective as best we can, and do what little we can, day by day, to give ourselves and others the chance to…be better. To feel better.

Not for accolades. Not for attention. But for the chance to approach balance and feel serene, the opportunity to throw off regret and to be satisfied with the gift of living. So I grieve for a self less able to see that he deserved gentler modes of conduct, and I try today to provide and seek out new support.

We’re worth the effort — all of us. It’s a big thing to do, to show up and say: “I deserve better”. It’s a less obvious response to realize that we already are enough, and that it’s our perspective, and what we do from that point, that might need to change. That’s the real hard work.

Have a great weekend. If I may — do one small nice thing for yourself this weekend. There will be a quiz.

This is part twenty-three of a thirty day trial, during which I am writing and publishing a post every day. No refunds. Comments welcome and encouraged!

Day 01: Struggles and Wonders and Dying in  Chair

Day 02: Fear, Panic, Identity and Anti-Focus

Day 03: Purple Sky of Towering Clouds Over a Far-off City

Day 04: Circle Up and Laugh

Day 05: On The Future of Labor

Day 06: Appreciating Difficulty, Harnessing its Momentum

Day 07: The Word for World is Earth

Day 08: It’s About The Dreaming, Not The Dream

Day 09: Moments of Presence: CWC Interview (Writer Laura Goode)

Day 10: Simmering Little Wrath of The Annoyed Man

Day 11: Tragedy, Remembrance and Wonder

Day 12: A New Light Borrowed or Discovered

Day 13: Productivity Tips for Anyone Prone to Overwhelm (Like Me)

Day 14: Legitimately Va-goo

Day 15: Sex-Bleating and Cat Vomit

Day 16: The Waiting Place

Day 17: 6 Ways to Bring Balance to the (Artistic) Force

Day 18: How to Decide What to Make Next

Day 19: Take Faith for Yourself, Give Them Skepticism

Day 20: All I Need Is My Lamp and My Dog!

Day 21: Why I’m Writing and Publishing, First Thing Every Morning

Day 22: The Routine Dance: Rewards and Perils

No Waiting: Filmmaker Christina Raia

Christina Raia9441

After a bit of a break, Coffee with Creatives is back and ready to inspire you in 2016. The first episode of the new year is with Filmmaker Christina Raia, who I first met on Twitter and then in person when Multiverse screened at Indieworks in NYC.

Christina is a prolific filmmaker with an intense work ethic. In addition to discussing the path that led to her first feature film Summit, we also discuss:

  • The many ways in which an artist can be boxed-in, in career terms, and how to help make sure that doesn’t happen
  • How we as artists change during, after, and across projects
  • Why she doesn’t like waiting before moving on to a new film or series
  • The experience of wondering if her $20,000 feature (Summit) would collapse entirely, during every day of its two-week production period
  • Learning to be vulnerable, and how that can help you (and any team members working with you) to, for instance, stick things out in sub-zero temperatures
  • In regards to her web series, Kelsey, how to achieve distribution success by reaching out to your base, or core audience

Great talk, hard-working, generous filmmaker. Summit is available now. You can find out more about Christina and her work on her site. Happy Creating! More great guests coming soon! If you enjoy our talk, please share it on Twitter or on Facebook.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and support the podcast on Patreon.

 

Empathic Cavities: Emily Best

emilyThe fact is, the more of the business interest you control, the more creative control you retain. Period. Full stop. — Emily Best

If you don’t already know Emily Best, I have good news for you. Not only is she my guest for the latest episode of Coffee with Creatives, she’s also probably out there, right now, traveling the country and engaging with creatives in-person and online and via her company Seed&Spark.

It’s what she does. As we discuss on the show, Emily is out there working to help create a new creative middle class. She and her colleagues at Seed&Spark have a mission and plenty of ideas, and they’re eager to talk with and help you.

These are only a few of the reasons why I place Emily among the most inspiring and respectable people I know. She’s a force. It was a delight sitting down to talk with her for an hour about the practical realities of crafting authentic art — and how to keep crafting it — in today’s ever-changing socio-economic environment.

Topics covered in our talk include:Crowdfunding class

  • How a college paper on a body modification web site, years spent running restaurants, and more years spent observing c-level executives do their thing — combined to form the foundation of what would become Seed&Spark
  • The challenges of achieving a return on investment (ROI) in today’s film environment, and how they can be overcome in service of a sustainable creative career
  • The fallacies inherent to waiting to be picked
  • How audiences really get built (digging into Louis CK as an example to duplicate)
  • Separating the definition of a fulfilled creative life from dreams of fame and fortune
  • Sitting down with yourself and/or your collaborators to honestly answer the question of what you really want
  • How new technologies can enable storytellers to root out and combat systemic inequalities
  • The dangers of being too precious about your work (process can be product)

I also asked Emily to name one thing that any creative could do in an hour to advance their career. She gave an excellent answer. If you enjoy our talk, please share it on Twitter (I am @MichaelDiBiasio and Emily is @EmilyBest) or on Facebook.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and support the podcast on Patreon.

What I Liked This Week: Hustler Edition

No. Not the nudie mag. Not even the iconic film.

This week, I’m highlighting three resources I stumbled upon, or sought out, that helped me hustle. As in work. Hard. Quickly. Efficiently.

Fractured Atlas Space Finder

It took me all of five minutes to find a space and book it. That's how it should go.
It took me all of five minutes to find a space and book it. That’s how it should go.
I did not know this existed. It’s fantastic. From Fractured Atlas:

For artists, the process of finding work space can be frustrating and inefficient. Meanwhile, venues have limited resources to spend finding new renters. Earned revenue is critical for creative venues yet many rental spaces are tragically underutilized. Through the SpaceFinder program, Fractured Atlas is increasing visibility of rental options, helping artists find the space they need, and helping venues promote and rent their spaces.

What happened was that I needed a space to record my Coffee with Creatives interview with Rick Younger (Coming Soon).

When I meet people in the city, especially when they’re doing something kind like meeting me to talk, I like to try to find a place or a space that’s easily accessible to them and either halfway between where we’re both going afterwards or at least fairly close. This time around, I was in a bit of a rush to find a spot, and didn’t know of too many spaces, off-hand, that would be quiet enough to record a podcast. The Space Finder allowed me to find something, quickly. It’s a great resource and I appreciate that it exists.

Filmmakers, actors, performers should check it out.

A Different Kind of Meditation: An Analysis of Word of Mouth (WOM) Marketing

Up is down and down is up.
WOM starts with doing something different.
I believe I stumbled upon Lincoln Murphy’s great Medium piece on WOM via GrowthHackers.

Anyone interested in authentically building an audience, and then smartly and honestly growing that audience, would do well to read it. Murphy specializes in Software as a Service (SaaS) but rightly points out that his observations apply universally to most companies.

I’d take that further, and hitch it up to the “Filmmaker as Entrepreneur” argument, to include anyone whose work would and does benefit from WOM.

The biggest take-away, in my opinion — WOM starts with a great product. From there, it’s about talking to your audience, and asking them what they like and want. It’s about participating in a relationship — not simply selling.

I shared the post with Seed and Spark’s #FilmCurious crew, and people seemed to agree with me that all this is relevant to what we do. For me, that seems to prove Murphy’s point.

Speaking of the #FilmCurious…

Click the image to read a transcript of the chat
Click the image to read a transcript of the chat
This conversation couldn’t have been more appropriate for me. First, contributing towards a new and more equitable business model for indie film is my greatest obsession after contributing towards a greater dialogue about empathy and equality (through storytelling). In addition to that, after bringing The Videoblogs to Big Vision Empty Wallet’s (BVEW) 2015 Distribution Lab — I and the #VideoblogsFilm team are now working hard to iterate our business plan, finish the film, and get it out into the world.

Chat guests Jon Reiss and Adam Leipzig were very helpful, and gave a lot of great advice during the chat. As usual, the #FilmCurious crew also brought their own juice to the discussion. I brought fruit punch. It may have been spiked.

Good read. Get on it.

And have a good week.

602066_10100681300095942_1773576913_n (2)Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly.  I send one email per month.

Coffee with Creatives: Boy Turns Into Dog

Edward_PomerantzEdward Pomerantz taught me screenwriting.

I took his workshop two or three times while working through the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University when I was there. Eddie helped me adapt my first published short story into what would become my first film, Over Easy. That film wouldn’t have been a success, and I may not have “caught the bug” after making it, if I didn’t spend an entire semester workshopping the adaptation with Eddie and my classmates. His passion for writing and, more than that, about authentic storytelling, is infectious. I was very glad that he agreed to come on the podcast.

This episode was a pleasure to record. Eddie has had a long and varied career as a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and teacher. He also recently directed his first film, La Comida, which has so far played at four film festivals.

Topics we cover in the conversation include:

  • The necessity of having a clear reason for telling each story you sit down to write
  • The importance of only taking writing assignments you can make your own
  • The parallel importance of not looking down at an assignment that can be made your own with a little thought and consideration
  • Why Eddie believes Robert McKee ruined screenwriting
  • The differences between writing something and directing something
  • Listening to the needs of the story, rather than trying to force something to happen
  • “Keeping the ball in the air” as long and as effectively as possible
  • Bringing an element of danger into your work
  • And much, much more

Beatriz De La Cruz stars in La Comida, a funny and poignant short Written and Directed by Eddie.
Beatriz De La Cruz (La Comida)
It’s basically a crash course in how to leave it all on the table, in service of whatever it is that your story needs. I hope you like the interview.

Please feel free to drop a note in the comments if you have anything to add, or have any follow-up questions you’d like to ask.

You can find more about Eddie at his site: http://edwardpomerantz.com/.

Coffee with Creatives is also available on iTunes.

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 have 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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The Vulnerability Paradox

Margaret (Rebecca De Ornelas) and Vee (Phoebe Allegra) know the value of a short walk in the sun. From The Videoblogs.
Margaret (Rebecca De Ornelas) and Vee (Phoebe Allegra) know the value of a walk in the sun. From The Videoblogs.

Okay — fuck.

It’s been a long winter. It’s been a long winter because it’s been a long winter, but also because we’ve been in post on The Videoblogs since shortly after our shoot wrapped in September. I spent most of October battling a perhaps “normal” post-film depression, logging and organizing footage when I could, and since then have been chipping away at a rough cut that is probably a few weeks from finished.

Again — especially in indie film terms — I realize that a lot of that is “normal”. Considering that we’re close to a Next Big Step (the rough cut) it’s also exciting.

But I am barely keeping it together.

Now, to be clear, I am still keeping it together. As many of you know, I’ve spent much of the last few years striving to be better about self-care, at the same time that I’ve been working to build better habits that have led to increased creative productivity. I’ve also written here about the benefits of having (sort of) learned the hard way to pace myself. But as both the preceding statement and the relatively long period of quiet here on the site might reveal — it hasn’t been easy. I have stumbled and I have briefly forgotten some of the aforementioned lessons (it happens).

I want to spend some time talking about why that’s been the case, for my own benefit as well as, hopefully, that of others who may find themselves in a similar boat now or in the future.

Speaking personally, the hardest part of wrapping The Videoblogs was returning, bleary-eyed, to my standard day-to-day existence, having accomplished a major life goal — of which I was and am immensely proud of and grateful for — but which also exposed my heart to the world in a more widespread way than at any other point in my life. This was the way it had to happen, and I have accepted and continue to accept that. But it doesn’t mean it has been easy. Or that it’s over, for that matter. Despite my vulnerable state, it’s not over by a stretch — the film hasn’t even been seen by anyone yet, except me.

It felt normal when my head took a bit of a dip, following our shoot, because filmmaking is a large scale endeavor with a lot of emotions at stake (as is the case with most large scale endeavors). As I’ve said, I’ve been through it before — though never on this scale — and I’ve luckily met and continue to commune with other indie filmmakers who also go through it all the time. What I wasn’t prepared for, that happened sort of after we wrapped but basically at the same time, was the return of Great Panic to my life.

I don’t know why I supposed, in a general way, that I was done with prolonged periods of intense panic (lingering naivete, perhaps) but I suspect that the condition “caught me by surprise” months after the shoot because I was just…under a lot of pressure…and in a constant state of motion.

The Videoblogs has been a huge undertaking. In a way, as I have said before, it’s a culmination of years of work, learning, research, and preparation. In another, more tactile way, it was and continues to be a big thing with many moving parts operating with very limited resources. As its Director and one of its main Producers, I think it’s understandable that I might have had to commit in the short term to a bit of delusion in order to simply get through those hard parts of the process where the stakes were highest (the months leading up to production and then production itself). Indie filmmaking is a specific form of necessary madness, and it takes a mad person to even try to adequately honor a story with little else but a mash-up of similarly mad souls, a minimal cache of resources, a fart and a prayer.

To reiterate, I went into The Videoblogs with the benefit of years of practice in the technique of low-budgeting filmmaking, with the support of a community of peers to talk to (some of whom thankfully reached out unsolicited with helpful advice when they heard Rebecca and I were tackling The First Feature), and a clear knowledge, based mostly on these things, that the journey was nevertheless probably going to end up as something that would have to be gotten through —  before the experience of it was fully understood.

This does not make either the specific undertaking or me as a person special. I’ll end momentarily with a softer definition, but that’s arguably a partial description of life experience as we know it — some things just have to be gotten through, worked through, to be not only appreciated but respected as the eventual touchstones they may become as we continue on our respective journeys.

Still, I think that, over the course of the last several months, I lost sight of all that, a little bit. As I have said, I think it’s understandable (and forgivable) but I did, in my anxiety, occasionally forget the fact that this was never going to go perfectly, that it was never meant to go perfectly, that there’s time to let it go the way it has to go, and that I don’t and can’t possibly know how this is all going to play out — in terms of not only the film but my life as someone who feels compelled to make films and other works of artistic intention.

Who even wants to have it all figured out, to be done learning, at thirty years old (or at whatever age you are, as you read this)? It sounds nice, when you fantasize about it, but that’s not life. Life’s confusing and messy and surprising and funny and sad and everything else. While planning has its uses, all plans are doomed to fail in some way. As an aside, I’ll have more to say about that soon, in another post I’m working on that more broadly examines the relationship between artist and art, and wherein I’ll attempt to focus on the potential graces of this truth.

For now, I want to end this by going Catholic on you and confessing.

I have slipped, in my zeal to Figure It All Out (Now). I have overworked. I have overeaten, gaining probably fifteen pounds in gummis and cheeseburgers, because post-production is a dehumanizing process that turns men and women into anachronistic junk-consuming bent-figured computer-punching cave people. I have undershared, in forgetting how important it has been for me to keep in touch here and to listen to your feedback. I have let the winter cold and the cold reality of an indie filmmaker’s economic condition serve as excuses for under-socializing. In a desperate fit of existential questioning, I juggled editing with a mad dash of writing — all the while continuing to work full time — and developed nerve issues in both arms.

In short, I went a little crazy. Again. But I am slowly crawling back. Again.

Because that is what we do.

Though it took me some time to acknowledge this, the arm injuries have been a blessing in disguise, serving first as a red light and now a yellow light to work at a realistic pace and scale.

Similarly, in emotional terms, I’m trying to listen to my heart and experiment with a better system of exposing it more carefully — but with the same level of faith — by, for instance, swapping in targeted depth for broad nakedness. It’s no small thing, to risk yourself by putting work out into the world. But when I remember that I’m really only talking to those who will hear me, or really only have to commune with those who are willing and ready to meet me and the work on an approximately level plane — it gets a lot easier.

So I’ve started to feel better, and to behave more responsibly — because all of this, this experience, it’s beautiful, too, isn’t it? We can’t forget that.

I would have to believe in the beauty of the struggle, in some deep way, to do what I do. Again, while I understand what happened and why…now that I’m on the other side of it, I wonder why I ever doubt the results while I’m still engaged in the process. The artistic life, like all kinds of lives, is both struggle and relief, is as much about getting through the difficult times as it is appreciating the good feelings that come from having done that next thing. And I really do want to appreciate this moment. It feels right to do that.

The dirty trick of all this, I think, is that there’s no way of knowing, as mere humans, when things are going to go well or when circumstances are going to test you.

Arriving finally at the vulnerability paradox, I hereby state — until I forget it again — that I understand that when I risk myself through my work, that I must then also try to let go of any fears of potential results. There’s no other way to authentically experience the full rewards of any one endeavor as well as or as completely as any potential damages (which, as I have said repeatedly, come with their own eventual benefits as well).

Up until this point, I have engaged more often in a less fruitful pattern: fearing the risk, eventually building up the courage to take it anyway, then shying (at least in part) from the results of the undertaking. I don’t begrudge myself this past behavior, but the benefit of having so many others on board with The Videoblogs, as both collaborators and supports, is that I am able to ultimately shrug off any reflexive re-defensing of my vulnerable self via the strength that comes with the knowledge that this is not as lonely an undertaking as it sometimes feels.

It may have started with myself and my closest creative collaborators risking ourselves by openly stating that we felt this sort of a story — about mental health and reaching out via the screen and regaining some sense of community in an increasingly stratified and alienating modern world — needed to be told, and it may make sense that in telling it I feel exposed and afraid to move on (in spite of the fact that I am moving on now), but even as I have struggled in recent months I have known, somewhere, that what I was going through was normal, that this particular moment in time, where things were “okay” again, would come, and that I would find my way back here to you. Thus, the only way to assuage the fears that arrived as a result of becoming vulnerable, the only way to ease the defensiveness and the panic at the thought of judgment — is to name these fears and become vulnerable yet again. And this isn’t the last time, over the life of The Videoblogs, or hopefully mine in general, that things are going to happen this way.

This paradox can be wonderful, if we choose to embrace it, because (in my experience) abandoning the compulsion to control outcomes helps us switch perspective such that we may appreciate the difficult times as well as the good. When I remember to do this, to offer a basic metaphor, I find myself able to recall. say, the bitterness of distasteful experiences as adding depth and contrast and fullness to any additional sweetnesses that were there before or are forthcoming. Similarly, any one struggle could be re-framed as a splash of the acidic, for mixing with the sweat of life to add variety and excitement to a day that perhaps seems a little too blankly reduced to extremes of bitterness and sweetness only. I think those metaphors work. I don’t know. I’m hungry.

The point is that though I forgot it for a while, things are going to be okay. I can be patient. I can talk and share and especially I can laugh and shrug and just ride it out and trust the work.

Because that’s really all it comes down to, isn’t it? Do the work and be heartfelt about it and find your own heart in it and share with others and hold your breath and wait and trust and, when it’s all over, when you’re ready — do it again.

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