There’s a building not far from my house that takes me back to December of 2004 each time I drive past. It’s not a good memory, but rather one that still gives me shivers eight and a half years later.
It’s the memory of a night I suddenly couldn’t remember what I was doing and freaked out as I tried to do my job.
We were close to finishing the first day of shooting for my short film, “We’re the Government — and You’re Not.” Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was the writer and director, and I was sharing the producer duties. I honestly didn’t know until that day just how little I knew.
Even though the day had been a blur, things had generally gone well except for my car having a flat tire at the next-to-last shooting location of the day. (I rode around on the little “doughnut spare” all weekend because I didn’t have time to fix the tire.) I was waiting for one last prop to come in the mail. It was days late, but we thought it would be there. I ran to my house and it wasn’t there — and it was time to shoot the scene. I didn’t have a back-up plan.
The prop was an old-fashioned hand-crank calculator. It was to be used with glee by the IRS agent in the audit scene. In my mind, it was a key to the scene, because I knew exactly what it was supposed to look like. But it hadn’t arrived. I had somehow mismanaged the process of getting it there — and having a back-up solution — so I started panicking. After quickly driving to a couple of other places in a fruitless attempt to find some other prop, I drove back to the location where we were shooting the IRS scene — the building I mentioned at the beginning.
I went inside to find problems. The owner of the building had decided to toss us out, so the production manager was begging, pleading and lying to get us just a few more minutes. The two actors and the director of photography were waiting for me to give orders for the scene.
But my mind was fried. I could barely remember what was going on, much less what the scene was. I suddenly had no recollection of what we had planned for the scene, much less how I’d do it without the missing prop. I was in full-scale panic mode.
The director of photography was the amazingly talented Alicia Robbins. I pulled her into the next room — away from the actors — and said, “Alicia, I’m suddenly losing it. I can’t remember what our plan for this scene was. Will you tell me what we’re doing before I go in there and embarrass myself?”
Alicia saved me by basically making that scene happen. While they were waiting for me to get back to the location, she had worked out something for the actors to do that didn’t involve the missing prop. One of the actors happened to be a very talented guy by the name of J.J. Marrs. Between the two of them, Alicia and J.J. saved the scene and made me look better than I had any right to look.
Even though the film went on to be pretty successful for a low-budget short from a first-time director, that moment of meltdown has stayed with me ever since. In fact, I don’t think I had been aware of how much it had affected me until I started work recently on my next film, “John Crispin for President.”
For all these years, I’ve been terrified to make another film. I blamed it on everything you can think of. The unexpected success of the first one made me fear that it had been a fluke and that I’d disappoint certain people (one person in particular) if I tried again. I blamed it on lack of money. I blamed it on other things. I did everything in the book to avoid taking another chance, because I didn’t want to feel that horrible feeling of being ashamed of myself for not being prepared.
It wasn’t until after I started working on “John Crispin” that it hit me. More than anything else, I was running from those awful minutes when I felt like a fool and lost the ability to think or remember or do much of anything coherently. I had felt shame, because there’s a part of me that believes I’m supposed to be perfect. And this horrible little meltdown reminded me clearly of just how imperfect I was. I’ve been afraid to experience that again.
Since I’ve been working on “John Crispin,” I’ve realized something. I guess I might have known it intellectually, but I’ve experienced it in a way that felt more real.
I’ve realized that you’re never really ready for the next big step in life. If you feel ready, you’re probably not taking much of a step. You’re probably just repeating what you’ve already done over and over before. You’re probably staying in your comfort zone. You’re probably wasting your life.
I needed to step out of the little box where I’ve been comfortable and take another scary step toward things I said I wanted. I don’t enjoy feeling uncomfortable, but I know I’ve needed to do it. I’ve been playing it safe ever since I made that first short. As a result, I haven’t done a whole lot of things that I’m proud of. Playing it safe lost something very important to me about four years ago and ever since, it’s made me feel that my world was shrinking. I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I felt afraid much of the time.
Since I started work on “John Crispin,” I feel like my old self again. I’m taking chances that I haven’t taken lately, and I know that it’s possible I’ll fall on my face. But playing it safe has made me feel dead. Taking a risk to get what I want is making me feel alive again. The results almost don’t matter as much as taking the chance.
I’m not ready for the project I’m working on. I’m making it up as I go. I’m making mistakes. But I’m doing it even though I’m not ready — and I’m starting to think that’s the only way to do what you really need to be doing.