Friday, April 25, 2008


My former wife, Diane Gaidry, conceived of the project "Red, White and Blue" - an homage to Krystof Kieslowski's decalogue that put together 10 FA filmmakers who each would create a tangentially-connected short elliptically addressing one of the American Bill of Rights. Brilliant, timely idea for which, sadly, we still have yet to find the financing. I am one of the filmmakers, and in developing the project, Diane conceived of a creative retreat, where the participating filmmakers would work on their individual projects, share ideas, watch/discuss films and bond socially in a quiet, but intensely focused setting. We did a few of them and they were all terrifically productive and inspiring. Fun, too.

So, even though "Red White and Blue" has stalled, there are still plenty of other projects that we all have in various stages of development/completion. So, we decided to continue the retreats. But they would be built along the idea that each of us woudl be doing our "own thing" without any connection to the others - our own projects in our own way. But all else would be the same - a beautiful, serene, fairly remote location. A big house that would fit us all. Community meals and a strict creative schedule - but with some time for play. Of course, all of the participating filmmakers would chip in for the cost of it - roughly $220 per person for a three-night retreat with everything (lodging, food, booze, firewood, toilet paper, etc.) included.


So, we did one just this past week-end. And I can't help but take the time to talk about what a great experience it is and sort of break down why this sort of thing is so nourishing for certain kinds of filmmakers - or any creative beings. I say certain kinds because there are many creative-types who do not thrive in a group environment. They rail against it. The do not need nor want community involvement in the creative process and feel such energy is a threat to their own methodology. I can understand that. The creative process should invite risks and failures. It can also dig deep into highly vulnerable personal spaces. It can excite the sensitivity of our egos in ways we never expected. It's easy to see how laying this all out - sometimes prematurely - in a group dynamic can be very unpleasant.

But personally, I thrive on it. Even in the very earliest stages of a project. Part of it is bravery (my own little self-congratulatory opinion) and part of it is insecurity. I am indeed fearless about laying it all out there and letting people see the blemishes and turds that are part of the creative process. But that fearlessness comes in part, from a sense that I don't have what it takes to do it alone. And when I say I don't have it, I don't mean talent and ideas - although I'm happy to suck those out of anyone who'll let me. I'm talking about objectivity. Sometimes, I get so bonded with my own creations or I am so obsessed with a particular image or thematic that it's almost impossible for me to let it see that it is simply not working.


I also like how communal reactions and ideas stimulate my own. I've been given some ideas that are admittedly horrible ideas (even by the person giving them) that have spurred all kinds of great new things for me. I have had the entire room tell me how bad an idea is in a way that confirmed for me just the opposite - how good the idea is. Because they are reacting exactly how I need them to react so that I know that the film is on the right path of the journey I am taking them on.

And, finally, it is always inspiring and stimulating to learn from others' work and from my own reactions to it. Reading and reacting to other work always challenges or clarifies things for me in my own work or in regard to general filmmaking aesthetics. Why did you make this or that choice with the character? How are you choosing to explicate this or that theme? Why was I not compelled by this script 30 pages into it, yet when I finished it, felt completely satisfied - even deeply moved? Asking these kind of questions of myself and the filmmaker almost always leads me to a greater understanding of what makes a film work.

So, here's how it went - just in case you want to create your own. Pretty simple:

- Gather up eight to twelve talented, articulate, creatively ambitious filmmakers who have the time and money to do this, but who also have a project they are actively working on and, on which, they need support. This is the toughest part by far, obviously, for most of you. But thankfully, not for us in our little FA family.

- A week-end usually works best, depending on people's lives and jobs, but it typically needs to be two full days and two half days. Meaning, participants come in Friday afternoon and leave Monday morning. If necessary for their jobs, people can come in late Friday and leave late Sunday night. Can feel a bit rushed, but it works.

- Find a place in a beautiful, serene setting that is big enough to house all of you comfortably. We went to Big Bear this time, but in the past, had also gone to the Central Coast Wine Country and other places. We found the cabins and made the reservations online. Remember, unless you all have big bucks, you may need to share rooms. Ours had 5 bedrooms with twin and bunk beds. Worked out nice. You also need a good-sized living room to meet and discuss.

- We invited people to submit whatever they were working on which could include short and feature-length scripts, partial feature length scripts, treatments, proposals and film rough cuts. It really can be anything that needs work and can benefit from a communal feedback process.

- All of the projects need to be reviewed by all of the participants prior to the retreat. That means participants need to submit copies of their projects to all of the other participants no later than one week prior to the retreat. They must be ready to give their feedback on each project in a clear, constructive way.

- Someone will have to pay for the cabin pretty far in advance to secure it, but make sure you collect from the participants at least 2 weeks in advance and let them know there are no refunds otherwise whoever paid initially will be stuck with the extra cost. Also, if they want to replace themselves, they have to do it with your approval. The dynamic of the participants is crucial.

- Not all of the participants will pay the same. You can create a bit of resentment that way since some of the rooms will be shared, some won't. For unshared rooms and/or master bedrooms, you will charge a bit more per person. I let people pick their rooms on a first-come/first-serve basis. But nothing is 100% confirmed until they pay for it.

- Also, bundled into the single price of the week-end are all food, booze and supply costs as well as cleaning fees or any other charges. Refundable deposits should be handled by you alone and will come back to you alone. All costs in addition to the lodgings cost came to about $35-$40 per person for the whole retreat (that's for us at Big Bear outside of L.A. and shopping mostly at Trader Joe's). So again, total costs were about $220 a person - some more, some slightly less.

- Find people who will volunteer to cook. If you want good food, people have to be passionate about making it. Luckily, I like to cook, but I was with several others who also like to cook and cook well, so I wasn't the only one doing it. In fact, I did very little of the cooking, actually.

- Get food preferences/restrictions. Then, along with those who've agreed to cook, develop a menu for the week-end based on two big meals (breakfast and dinner) and a light lunch. You also need plenty of snack materials and some dessert. Don't forget the beverages - alcoholic and non-alcoholic. And LOTS of water. Also, condiments and seasonings, toilet paper, firewood (if there's a fireplace), etc., etc.

- Shop in the morning before the retreat, if possible. A day before, if not.

- Simple house rule: Those who don't cook, clean. And all clean together on the last day before loading out.

- Develop an agenda for the week-end. And stick to it as much as humanly possible. What worked for us was the following:

Friday Night
Prior to 6:00 p.m. - Settling in/Writing/Cooking
6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. - Dinner and clean-up
8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. - Each filmmaker introduces their project and gives some background/insight into it. They also discuss their goals for the retreat and why they chose to participate.
10:00 to bedtime - Hang out, writing, party, whatever...

Saturday and Sunday
Wake-up until 10:00 a.m. - Private time/Writing/Breakfast
10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. - Feedback meetings for 1/4 of the projects
1:00 p.m. until 2:00 p.m. - Break-time/Lunch
2:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. - Feedback meetings for 1/4 of the projects
5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. - Rest/Writing/Cooking
8:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. - Dinner and clean-up
10:00 p.m. until bedtime - Writing, movie watching, chatting, games, night hike, hot-tubbing, partying, whatever....

Wake-up until 9:00 a.m. - Private time/Writing/Breakfast
9:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. - Group clean-up and check-out

DRUNKEN POST WRITING AGENDA SCRAWLED OUT AT 4 A.M. (names were distorted to protect the guilty)

- Always remember the rules of good feedback: Be clear and specific. Be positive before negative. Be constructive and not merely judgmental. Offer solutions and not merely point out problems. Be respectful and sensitive to the goals of the filmmaker. Be brutally honest (again, but respectfully so). Do not interrupt other people's feedback. And, if you do, (because it happens when people are speaking passionately and ideas are flowing) make sure apologize/acknowledge and return to them when you are finished.

- Take copious notes. And/OR use an audio recorder. One of our participants had one built into his computer and created audio files for each project's feedback and then those files were given to the filmmaker. It was great.

And that, pretty much is that. Sounds simple, but it is amazing what goes on in those feedback sessions and in the subsequent discussions it creates throughout the retreat. And, with the right people of course, it is fun as hell....worth exponentially more than the price of admission. And the inspiration and ideas that emerged, at least for this filmmaker were (and are)...priceless.


  1. Yes! Thank you Jacques for putting this retreat together. I'm already looking forward to the next one.

  2. That really sounds amazing! Thanks for breaking down how to put it together... Zak Kilberg

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