On July 15th, 2008, I bought my first film camera. Panasonic HVX 100. That weekend I was making a movie during the graveyard shift both nights at a Fed-Ex Kinkos my friend worked at. The first night, we got delayed for over two hours while a woman and her mother decided that 1am is the best time to make demanding requests that they didn’t want to pay for. We didn’t do nearly enough takes, everyone was tired, and even though the actors hadn’t really bothered to learn their 15 straight pages of dialogue, I was hell-bent on doing every scene as a single shot.
I’ve made 4 movies in the last year – one of which I partially re-cast and completely re-shot, so 5 “technically” – and it’s safe to say I’m not the same filmmaker I was a year ago. (Check out one of them here and another one here) I was reading over some journal entries from that week. Illuminating:
“Right now my focus is on breaking down the script and figuring out… how each scene should be covered. I have some ideas for certain moments, but when I really think about having a specific shot – an interesting shot or at least a quality shot for every moment, the task becomes daunting. It is entirely possible that I have barely gotten my training wheels off, and here I am diving down a steep, rocky hillside. We’ll see how many bruises I end up with.” – July 15th
“The clearest, truest thing I can say is that I feel like a filmmaker now. My feet wet, my mind unstoppably active from this point forward, this is what I want to do.” – July 21st
Like most things worth doing, there is a combination of total fear and breathless excitement. I remember toiling away over storyboards, wanting to be professional, doing script breakdowns, blocking out the movements like a play in some cases. Pages upon pages upon pages of things. It’s a little like having your journal open in front of everyone, and they’re all passing it around asking you questions about it. You’ve got a choice to make. You can either be embarrassed about what you’re doing, or you can be proud and bold about it. One of the things I think I’ve learned most this year is to stand up and speak loudly what you want. Making movies with your friends is one thing. Completely different is standing in the Kansas City slums at 7am on a breezy Saturday morning in April, 25 cast and crew around you, most of whose names you don’t even know, everyone looking at you, expecting you to know what in the world to do, because after all your badge says “Director” and you’re in charge and at that point there is no one to hold your hand and do it for you. I find that I thrive in those moments. I love them. The Police showed up? Fuck it, I’m the director, looks like I’m walking over to chat with them, here goes nothing. Actors have questions, assistant director has questions, crew want to know where to set up the camera, lights need adjusting, what time is lunch, how many takes are we planning to do this time, this line doesn’t make sense, are we really going to film in a plane and a hospital, and how will we get those locations, “We need a director over here, please,” how does his makeup look, where’s our next location, is the dolly working yet…. on and on and on, and if you read this and think the eventuality that all of those things will be happening at once is a nightmare, then directing may not be for you. But the idea gives me chills, I get excited, I just want to be there in that big circus of creativity and shoot for 20 hours and be dead tired on Monday, but what’s it matter anyway, they won’t fire me, and I’ll sleep during the week.
There’s just nothing like being on set and doing the thing you were meant to do and doing it well. Lesson #1 is the same as my high-school drama teacher taught: You’ve got to love it. It’s too hard to do if you don’t, and with so many people who do love it, just get out of the way and let them through.
I like things complicated. I like difficult shots, I like scenes that walk a fine line, I like to do a lot of takes. All fine things. But sometimes, you’ve got to kill your babies. Much of this year has been learning that there is power in simplicity. That simple doesn’t mean bland. That sometimes, a splash of complexity will get more mileage than you think. That just because you can design a 4 minute shot through a store, doesn’t mean you can film it, doesn’t mean the mics will work, doesn’t mean it’s the very best way to tell your story.
One of the biggest lessons has been that you can’t just show up and hope for the best. When I made that movie a year ago, I did not understand how my camera worked. I’m just now starting to really get it. You’ve got to seek out a knowledge base, and that means surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you and playing Sponge. There has been no more valuable tool than the IFC-KC (Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City). It connected me to the majority of the actors and crew for “Trailer: The Movie.” They let me hold auditions at their offices. For FREE. And it’s community, it’s connection, it’s knowing people and watching their stuff and talking about it and giving them your stuff. Every week I look forward to seeing certain people at the meetings, knowing afterwards, we’re all going to the same place to relax, have a drink, discuss why Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is the suck. Is there really anything else?
I think I didn’t quite understand the bond that forms on set. I was probably too cynical. I’ll close with two moments that I won’t forget. First, being at Kinkos with Peter (who worked there) from 4am till 8am to help get all the work done he should’ve been doing while we filmed. Dead tired, but still on a high, talking about whatever. Second, finishing “Trailer: The Movie” in Warrensburg, we got it done faster than we thought, eating our last meal together as a crew. Having a beer with them, the sense of accomplishment and pride I felt sitting there with Adam, thinking how strange and amazing it was that we had somehow caused this group to be together, people we didn’t know 8 months ago who are now invaluable to us. I didn’t see that coming. But I think I’m starting to catch on.