Thursday, April 10, 2008

Breadwinning vs. Filmmaking - Resolving the battle with a short film

My friend and creative Collaborator Sean Hood got back behind the camera to film his short "Zacariah" (formerly "Sounds Through A Wall"). The short script was a winner of the Los Angeles Short Filmmaking Grant administered through us over at Filmmakers Alliance (FA) and became a sort of "family" project as it was produced by FA founding member Cain DeVore and FA Vice-Prez Amanda Sweikow.

Sean Hood contemplates his film

Sean has been doing a lot of professional screenwriting (as in paid) over the past several years and that is what keeps him in silk suits and shiny cars. But he is an artist/filmmaker first and foremost, and the urge to make a film never stops burning within him. However, life and work priorities kept him away from actually making a film over the last 10 years other than a sketchbook he and I did together back in 2003.

I bring this up because it is easy to find yourself in this situation and it is one you must vigilantly guard against or challenge yourself to change. I myself have not shot a feature in 8 years (although I finished the film not too long ago) and have not made a short in almost 3 years. Unacceptable, even if understandable. I spent the first of the last three years touring with the short to numerous festivals, the second year distributing the feature and the last year recovering from personal crises and trying to stabilize my crazy life (and co-producing 3 films). So, on one level, I can forgive myself.

But, like Sean, the desire to make a film never stops burning within me. And making a film these days - especially a short film - is so accessible, there's really no excuse short of some catastrophic mental or physical disablement to stop us from doing what is most essential to our nature. And, in fact, ignoring that crucial part of ourselves does far more harm than good to our psyche - no matter how financially stable we are able to make ourselves during those long non-filmmaking periods.

Sean had finally reached a point where he was determined to make his film by any means necessary. In addition to the money and resources he got through the LASF Grant, he had planned all kinds of fundraisers and solicited support from all he knew. For a short film, there are all kinds of ways to raise money. And Sean was exploring them all when providence lent a hand and a nice financial windfall showed up unexpectedly, allowing him to throw the production into high gear. Keep in mind, there are many ways to raise money for a short film (fundraising events, garage sales, personal donations, corporate grants, just plain begging for it, etc.) and there are all kinds of films that can be made that don't demand many financial resources. In other words, there is nothing to stop you financially.

The next step for Sean was to surround himself with a support crew that would contribute to the film in a way that allowed him to focus on guiding its creative vision. And in Cain and Amanda (and many others) he did a great job. But this is due, in no small part, to the support and guidance he has historically given to our filmmaking community. He's been there for us, so we naturally wanted to be there for him.

The rest almost automatically falls into place. Sean shot his short on the fancy new RED camera, but it wouldn't have mattered if he was shooting on a 1990 Hi-8 Video camera. He was making a film. He was in his element. He was answering the call of his essential self and didn't let anything stand in his way this time.

The mythical RED camera

In my case, what challenges me is not the means, it's the meaning. Sean had his script, which he'd been developing for awhile prior to winning the Grant. I, however, have been struggling to wrap my arms around a concept that works for me on all the levels on which I would want a film to work. In other words, it is not enough for me to devise a clever or even a moving story. It is not enough to create amazing visuals, sound design or some other dazzling filmic component. It isn't even enough for me to make a film that has something meaningful to convey. The film I make must work simultaneously on all of those levels and more. It should be compelling narratively, arresting artistically and rich thematically and metaphorically. In other words, the film should realize as much of the poetic and visceral potential of cinema as is possible.

Now, I know this is a tall order and, in some ways, just another barrier I create to stop myself from making a film. I simply need to get over it. All of us can only make the film we are capable of making at the moment. And it will lead us wherever it leads us. I have ideas. They may not organically work on all the levels my "dream project" might work on, but they will allow me to investigate enough creative issues to be worthwile. Watching Sean on set was inspiring and motivating. It was like he'd been making films every month for the last ten years. He was focused and assured. He was doing what he was meant to be doing. And it was NOT about the resultant film. It was about the process of doing...of learning...of growing...of creating.

Time for me to experience my own process.


  1. Thanks Jacques. The film has a long way to go (Sound design may end up being the most important element), but with the support I continue to get... I know I am going to enjoy the process.

    The biggest block for me creatively over the last decade was my "shame" about my day job. Writing genre movies that were panned by audiences and critics, and then writing much BETTER movies that never got made... weighed heavily on me over the years.

    It was really only in the last year that I fully embraced my "day job," not just doing it for money but taking real joy in it and absorbing myself in the craft, that I was able to find the courage to stretch myself artistically.

    I think filmmakers should spend less time punishing themselves for their self-perceived failures and more time doing what they love...

    ... making movies.

  2. Jacques, this is such a great perspective-setting blog post. Thanks for putting down into words, the day-to-day battle so many of us wage.

    Sean, thanks for the follow up. I spend a lot of my day-time hours directing commercial projects, and I have been fortunate enough to be given enough room to go ahead and try out new things with each project. These are experiments in production or post that I am curious about, that inform my own personal filmmaking.

    In whatever gig we get, if there is time to try out new ideas, then I think it can be counted as a success. I have come to see my professional gigs as an extension of my own artmaking, rather than the antithesis to it.

  3. Yeah, the main reason I've made so few movies is that I have to be completely passionate about anything I direct: passionate enough to live with the movie for at least three years (or a year for a short).

    With the vast majority of screenplays I write, by the time I finish writing them the passion has dissipated. With Spike, my passion managed to last at least until about halfway through production, by which point it was too late to quit! ;)

  4. Hey Sean:

    Have you heard of Engine Room Studios? They're a sound house that worked with my colleage Tao Ruspoli on his feature "Fix." They did an f-in AMAZING JOB. Took a movie made on 500k and made it sound like it had a blockbuster budget. Check em' out! Good luck on post.


  5. What a great post. Thanks for your honesty.

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