I went to see the new movie “Moms’ Night Out” Friday. This family-friendly comedy isn’t something I’d normally see, but the film was shot in Birmingham by local directors and producers, so I wanted to see how many locations I recognized and how I liked their work.
I enjoyed seeing local streets and buildings that I know well, so I’m glad I went. I’m not really the target market for the movie, but it will probably do well for a low-budget family comedy (even though the reviews have been pretty brutal).
When I got home, I happened to put something down on the mantle above my fireplace. When I picked it up a couple of minutes later, I stood there for a minute and stared at some things I normally forget are even there — the awards that my one and only short film won almost 10 years ago.
I stood there and just stared, as though I was seeing them for the first time. And I berated myself once more for not making anything since then.
I shot “We’re the Government — and You’re Not” in December of 2004. Post-production was finally finished by the beginning of June 2005 and I started entering it into film festivals. Over the next 18 months or so, it was shown at 20 festivals and won five awards. In addition to U.S. festivals, it was screened in Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand.
Although it was my first film and I bumbled my way through the process at times, it was more successful than I ever dreamed it could be. It’s been seen on YouTube by close to 350,000 people since then.
As I stood there looking at a few of the awards Friday evening, I wasn’t sure whether to feel angry or ashamed for not having done another film. I saw myself as a filmmaker at the time. I have at least half a dozen scripts at various stages of development, ideas that I’m happy with and think would be good films. So why haven’t I done anything else?
Do I really want to make films? I thought so. Could I be wrong? I’ve always heard that what people do says more about what they want than what their words say. Could it be that I was fooling myself?
When I made this film, I was definitely trying to impress a woman, but I really think it was more than that, because I’d already been saying for nearly 15 years that I wanted to make films. So if I do have a sincere interest — just for myself, not to impress someone — what’s stopped me?
When I made my first short, I never expected it to be especially successful. I was just funding it out of my own pocket on a wing and a prayer. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. It somehow came together better than I had any right to expect. Although I made a long list of flaws after it was finished, the fact remains that I did something that a lot of people try to do — and I was somehow more successful than most of them are.
I think being a little bit successful scared me.
There was no pressure the first time. I was an ignorant nobody who had nothing to lose. Afterward, I felt like a nobody who knew how little he knew. And having achieved a very mild taste of success, I was afraid. What if I had just gotten lucky the first time? What if I’d reached the best I could do and went downhill from there? What if I were a failure?
About the same time I made my short, a couple of brothers in Shelby County — right next door to me — made their first music video for some country singer who I’d never heard of. The director of photography for the video was the same (very talented) woman who I used on my project. “Two Old Cars” wasn’t necessarily a great music video, but it was good enough to be noticed. And it was good enough to get more opportunities for Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin — the brothers who directed the Sony TriStar movie that I saw in a theater Friday.
The Erwins took their small successes from a decade or so ago and they built on them. They weren’t afraid of taking risks. I was afraid. I was afraid of being judged and not being good enough.
I might not be the most talented writer or director in the world. I honestly have no way of knowing. But I haven’t given myself a chance. I’ve made plans to make additional films, but I’ve never actually done it. (I announced one project last year, but it fell through because it required special effects makeup and the project was put on hold when the makeup artist quit during the planning stages. I never found a replacement for her. That was almost a year ago.)
In a lot of ways, I’ve felt for the last six months as though I was at a fork in the road. I’ve talked about it here before. I could take steps to become the person I’d always intended to be or I could accept a mediocre life in which I never bothered to try again to do the things I’m capable of.
I’ve taken some tentative steps in the right direction, but I still haven’t risked anything. I feel angry with myself about that — and I also feel ashamed to feel so much fear of even trying.
Maybe I’m arrogant or deluding myself, but I don’t think I’m any less talented than the Erwin brothers are. Still, they have things to show for their talent. They have complete movies that have been shown in theaters. I don’t. They’re making movies while I’m just talking and thinking about what might have been.
I don’t like asking myself why I haven’t built on my tiny sliver of initial success, because it says things about me that I don’t want to be true — and that I don’t want to think about even if they are true.
When I was young, I thought that things such as intelligence and talent made people successful. I think I have some of both, so I expected success. Nobody really taught me, though, that intelligence and talent are (literally) useless without courage and the willingness to fail.
There’s a part of me that would like to throw away these awards and forget that I ever made a short film. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with this question. But I did make a short. It was pretty good for a first-time effort. A lot of people liked it. Audiences and judges liked it enough to give it awards in some places and at least show it in other places. Hundreds of people have actually bought copies of the DVD. And even more have written me to say how much they liked it.
The only person stopping me from having more success is me. It’s my fear and unwillingness to risk looking like a failure and a fool. It’s not a lack of money (although that’s a real issue). It’s mostly an abundance of perfectionism and foolish pride.
None of this is relevant to anyone but me. Hardly anyone cares whether I do anything with my life or not. That’s just a fact. Nobody is going to rescue me and hold my hand and pull me through the effort of doing something. It would help if I had a partner — a wife or even girlfriend who cared about this, too — but I don’t have the luxury of that for now.
I’m either going to do something for my own reasons — because I believe in myself — or I’m going to be a bitter old man eventually who constantly looks to the past and complains about what might have been.
Nobody else can decide for me which I’m going to do. I’d like to say I’m certain about what I’m going to do, but I honestly have no more idea than you do. I just know that I need to face my fears and demons now — before it’s too late.