On Dec. 10, 2004, a small film crew gathered at 6:30 in the morning for the first day of shooting on a short film. It was only a three-day shoot — with some pickup shots on a fourth day — but everything was planned in detail.
For more than a year, I had struggled to take the germ of an idea and turn it into a film. I had recruited someone I knew in local video production to help me find a crew. Some of the people we recruited were fantastic and some turned out to be nightmares to work with. Some did their jobs and others were dumped along the way.
The process was really ugly at times.
I didn’t know how to write a script. I had to figure out how to structure something entirely different from what I’d ever written before. I had to trust production people who I barely knew. And I couldn’t afford to get better people (or paid actors) because I had a grand total budget of only $8,500.
The three full days of production were hard work. A lot of things didn’t go right. There were times when we hadn’t yet found the actors to stand in shots for the scenes that we were driving to a location to film at that moment. And I was always painfully conscious that I didn’t know enough about what I was doing. I got so stressed out toward the end of the first shooting day that I pulled the director of photography into a room privately and said, “I’m so stressed that I’ve forgotten what we’re about to do. Please help me here.”
But in the end, I made a modest short film that I’m proud of. It won a handful of awards and was shown at 25 film festivals in five countries. What I’ve realized lately is that the ugly creative process is just as important as the final film — and it’s time for me to open parts of my process to you.
If I’m going to be serious about changing my life — and becoming the artist I need to be — I’m going to have to show you the ugly parts of the process that I hope will create my films of the future. So here’s what I’m working on.
Although I would love to jump straight to a feature film, I don’t think I’m ready for that. Not only is a longer film far more difficult, but the budget required to do it is much larger. And even though I don’t know where I’m going to get the money to make these shorts, that’s part of the scary process that I’ll have to work through.
Here are the two films I’m most interested in doing right now:
— The first is a dramatization of a near-death experience that my mother had when she was young. I’ve told this story before, but as she laid in a hospital bed — close to death — she had an experience during which she met Jesus. Right before she touched his hand to go with him, he drew back and told her she had to go back to this world. And there was a very special reason that relates to me.
I’d like to tell the story of a mother sharing her experience with her little boy and then show the scenes of the experience as she tells him the story.
I’ve gotten very interested in near-death experiences in the last few years, and that has awakened my interest in this story that my mother told me several times when I was young. (Honestly, I didn’t think much about it back then.) I suspect other near-death experiencers will identify with her story — and many others will identify with her experience with me as a child.
— The second film is an idea that I’ve worked on here and there for at least five or six years. It’s about the effect that social media is having on our culture and it’s told through looking at some fairly abstract archetypes of social media users. All of these users live in the same apartment building and that building is representative of our culture as a whole.
This is a far more difficult film to pull off, because I envision it as very stylistic more than realistic. I have a strong understanding of the concept of what I want — and even the way I want it to feel — but I don’t know enough to pull off much of what I want it to be.
I can envision the look and feel, but I don’t know if I can explain them well enough for a director of photography and a set designer to pull off, especially on a limited budget. I know what I want the soundtrack to sound like — with overlapping voices droning on, everybody talking and nobody listening — but I don’t know whether I can explain it well enough for a sound designer to create.
This idea means a lot to me — and it mirrors my own experience with social media — but I worry about whether I have the skill to pull the idea off. And that has kept me running away from the idea time after time for years now.
I have other film ideas that are important to me — including one inspired by my relationship with my father — but these are the two that I’ve chosen to pursue for now.
When I started work on the script that would become “We’re the Government — and You’re Not,” I had little understanding of how much I didn’t yet know. That experience taught me a lot. It made me feel as though I was ready to do it again, but it also taught me how much I still had to learn.
For me to plan to make either of these short films requires that I assume I’ll be able to struggle through a process of learning and figuring things out. It requires that I have faith that I’ll learn what I have to learn along the way — and that I will somehow produce films that I don’t currently feel capable of making.
I’ve decided to share this with you — those of you who might be interested — because I’ve learned how much the process of art-making is embedded in the final product. (I talked about this in some audio I posted last weekend.)
Even after I realized that, though, it wasn’t until later this week when I decided to share this much of the nitty-gritty with you. And it’s all because of something that I heard Seth Godin say about the Beatles.
In a podcast episode earlier this month, Godin talked about creative lessons that we can learn from the new Beatles documentary called “Get Back.” If you haven’t seen the documentary, it consists of work the band did over a period of three weeks as they wrote songs for an album they were about to perform live.
When the four Beatles start preparations, they don’t have anything written, so we get to watch them as they work. We see the process they go through — and how the four worked in very different ways. Even though I had seen much of the documentary, I hadn’t noticed these differences until Godin pointed them out.
At one point in his discussion of the documentary, Godin points out the differences between Paul McCartney’s process and George Harrison’s process. McCartney was willing to play bits and pieces of songs that were really, really bad at that point — and then work them out in real time in front of the others.
Harrison was very different. He didn’t want to present a song to his bandmates until it was finished and “perfect.” And when he did present it, he was insecure, saying that it probably wasn’t very good.
I’ve always been like Harrison. I haven’t wanted anybody to see my work until it was polished and perfect. And if the work couldn’t be perfect, I didn’t want anybody to ever see it. I hid what I was doing and thought that I must not be very talented if I didn’t effortlessly turn out flawless work the very first time I tried.
Godin says this is a big part of the reason that we see McCartney as a creative genius and we sometimes forget that Harrison wrote some of the Beatles’ best songs.
McCartney had a process — one which allowed others to listen to him as he spun out work that was terrible to start — which he stuck with long enough to do it over and over, resulting in great songs.
Harrison had a process which required him to hide from everybody until he could get something as close to perfect as possible before he even showed what he was working on. He was uncomfortable with others seeing his work in process.
I need to be more like McCartney and less like Harrison. I need to accept that sharing my process — and my struggles to get past the stage at which things seem terrible — is part of what will get me to where I need to go.
Part of the reason I’m scared to share my process is that I’m afraid to admit that I want to make a project — and my fear is that I’ll be embarrassed if I end up not being able to do what I say I want to do. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to share with you what I’m working on.
I don’t want a year to pass and for you to say, “Hey, he said he was going to make this film, but he didn’t do it. He must not be very good after all.” As I talked about in what I posted this past weekend, I have to get past my fear of what you are going to think.
So this is the early part of my process for a new film. I can’t say for sure which it will be. I have no idea where I’ll get to money to pay a cast and crew. And I have no idea how much I have yet to learn to overcome all the problems that stand between me and the finished film.
But when I started shooting that short film in 2004, I didn’t know what I was doing, either. But I did it — and I did it because a woman wanted me to do it.
Some of you might have heard me tell this story, but I had met a brilliant and creative young woman who I was interested in dating. She was fascinated with me and she was very taken with my interest in filmmaking. In fact, I ended up letting her read two scripts I’d written — and I let her choose which one to make.
I made that short because she inspired me to. She believed in me — and I wanted her to keep believing in me. She and I had a bumpy relationship, but one of my proudest moments was when I was able to take her to a film festival showing the film. I was able to say, “Here’s what I’ve done. I made this for you.”
The process of making that modest short was ugly. The end result wasn’t perfect. (I have pages of detailed notes of all the things wrong with it.) But the film got made. A lot of people liked it and shared it with their friends. And it was a big advance for me artistically.
It’s time for me to take another big step artistically. I’ve been hiding too long. And if the process is important — even if it’s ugly — I’m here to share some of it with you.