The restaurant was almost empty Saturday afternoon. It was storming outside, so business had slowed to a trickle. I was the only customer at the moment. The teen-age employees were killing time by talking with me.
One of them knows I write a lot, so he asked how I started writing. I explained my background in newspapers and politics. As an afterthought, I mentioned that I really wanted to write and direct films. It turned out that two of the guys had an interest in filmmaking, so they ended up asking for advice.
Both of them have focused on epic scripts they’ve written for science fiction/fantasy movies that would cost a hundred million dollars to make. I explained about making short films and getting far simpler work online for people to see. I explained about my one short film about 12 years ago and how it got into 20 smaller film festivals. I told them they needed to be making anything — absolutely anything — to learn how to put stories together.
It was good advice. But after we were finished, I felt like a real hypocrite — because I’m not following the simple advice I’d given them.
I’ve told you before how I came to make my short film. It was purely because I was influenced by a woman who I wanted to think highly of me. I already wanted to make films. I had already written the script. But when she came along — and was enthusiastic about the work — I suddenly found solutions to all the problems that had blocked me. What had been impossible to me before suddenly became very doable.
Every few years, I go back and watch my old short, “We’re the Government — and You’re Not.” (That’s a screenshot from the film above.) I always feel a strange mixture of emotions. Part of me is hyper-critical about all the things that aren’t perfect. Part of me is proud that it showed promise, considering the tiny budget. And part of me is just angry that I haven’t done anything since then.
I don’t like most of what I do to earn a living these days. I have a strong craving to support myself by creating art. But I don’t do the simple thing that could lead to making serious art. I don’t do what I had correctly suggested to the two teens. I’m not finding ways to make small films to get better at the art of filmmaking and storytelling.
I always have excuses. I don’t have the money to invest into films. The equipment is expensive. The talent I would need to hire — actors and technical people — won’t always work for experience alone, especially people with the talent I want.
It’s not that I don’t have ideas. I could list a dozen film ideas in the next 10 minutes that I’ve gotten excited about and then done nothing about. So what’s the real reason I’ve done nothing since I made a first short 12 years ago?
When I made “We’re the Government — and You’re Not,” I knew I wasn’t an expert, but I didn’t know just how ignorant I was until I got into the process. Things almost fell apart at several points along the way. The casting was a disaster. (Half the roles were left uncast on the morning we started our three-day shoot.) In some cases, we would be moving the crew from one location to another while we called and begged people to come stand in front of the camera for a scene. After I finally viewed all the finished footage, I thought I’d have to throw it away. I genuinely thought it was too bad to use.
But having a very talented director of photography — Alicia Robbins — saved me in many cases. Even though we were shooting standard definition video and didn’t have the budget for better equipment, she knew enough to make up for my ignorance at times. The video editor we used in Los Angeles flaked out before finishing the project, but he got enough done that it could be salvaged by someone I found locally to finish. Then when I met the late Courtney Haden, he produced the music track and introduced me to the fantastic Ken Osbourn, who provided the narration.
Before I knew it, what had been unusable turned into something that smaller film festivals would accept. The film ended up winning four or five awards, mostly audience-choice awards for comedy. At the Myrtle Beach Film Festival in South Carolina, it won best of show, which stunned me.
After all this — and getting more than 300,000 views on YouTube — my first little short achieved more than I had thought possible. It wasn’t much by the standards of real filmmakers, but it was huge for me. When I looked back at how it had come about, I was terrified that I might try again — and fall flat on my face next time. I’m terrified that it might turn out my first success was just a fluke. Maybe I have no talent after all.
It’s getting harder for people like me to find excuses not to make films. In a Q&A session on Reddit last year (an AMA, in Reddit terms), film director Steven Soderbergh was asked for advice about getting the funding to make a movie.
“Get a script and an iPhone and start shooting. Seriously,” Soderbergh wrote. That was his entire response.
There are obviously plenty of films that still require a lot of money to make, but with the hardware and software available today — all of which is available to me right now — if you don’t make at least something, it’s because you’re choosing not to make anything.
When I gave those two teen-age boys advice earlier about making films, I gave them some really good information. If they followed my advice, they would certainly find out whether they have the talent to make movies. They would make simple films and they would get their work seen.
I don’t know whether this is confidence or arrogance or delusion, but I believe I have enough talent to tell stories through film. I think I’d be good enough to make good movies that people would pay to see. I think I could make a living at it. And I would be far happier doing that than the things I’m doing today.
If I believe those things — and if I have the courage of my convictions — I need to follow my own advice. I need to make some quick-and-dirty short films — and find out whether I’m right or not. It’s either that or continue to be miserable doing things which I hate doing.
Can I overcome my fear of not being good enough? My fear of failure? Can I find a muse to inspire me to greater effort? Only time will tell.