Don't Let a Bad Idea Get in the Way of a Good Time
It’s an old saw that filmmaking is a collaborative art. Unlike other art forms, filmmaking requires a group of people. It’s not a solitary pursuit.
Or is it? There are plenty of people who make films entirely on their own. Many artists make video art and experimental films by themselves. Does that make the old saw wrong?
Yes, it does.
It’s only true in a one narrow sense. That is, it only applies to making a certain kind of film. These are narrative films that I’ll refer to, for want of a better word, as ‘movies’. I am thinking of the kind of movies we all know and grew up with that require considerable resources to create. Movies that can’t be made single-handedly. Movies requiring an actor, for example, require at least one other person to operate the camera. (Recent technological advances can make a camera operator unnecessary, but the saying predates the tech.)
Mind you, ‘actor’ can be thought of very broadly. The subject of a documentary film is an actor in this sense. There has to be someone to film the subject. So the kind of films I’m talking about, that require a group of people - a crew - to create, aren’t just fiction films. Most documentaries fall into this category as well.
Does the old saw have any useful meaning then, if it is demonstrably false?
Again, yes. It does - if we stick to the notion of ‘movies’ I described above. A subset of all films and film art.
The answer relates to why we make these sorts of films. I say ‘we’ because I make these sorts of films, most of my friends and peers make these sorts of films, and I suspect most of you reading this make these sorts of films. So why do we do it?
To make a living, for one thing. In fairness, though, there are far more efficient ways of earning a living than filmmaking, so there must be more to it than that.
To make art is another reason. Art is its own justification, as far as I’m concerned. (There is a lot to say on that subject, but that’s for a different essay.) If one feels the compulsion, the calling, to create art, then one must heed it. If one’s medium is film, then film one must make.. But as I pointed out earlier, it is perfectly feasible to create film art by oneself. So why, then, do we make these collaborative movies?
We do it, I believe, because we are team players. We flourish in creative relationships with others. We long for that exquisite feeling of fulfillment we get when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and we are one of the parts.
That’s why I do it, at least. I am just an average filmmaker. That makes it a safe bet that there are many other filmmakers out there who feel as I do. Even if we make our living from it, even if it is how we express ourselves artistically, it is that sense of fulfillment that keeps us coming back.
For us, the saying ‘film is a collaborative art’ is redundant. It had better be! The collaboration is the heart of why we do it. It's our motivation, which is different from our reasons. I've mentioned many of the reasons: make money, make art, express our point of view. Motivations and reasons both explain 'why', but they address different 'why's'. Reasons are logical: a person does this because that. Motivations, on the other hand, aren't necessarily logical, because they answer a deeper 'why'. It's why a person makes their living from filmmaking rather than some easier way. It's why a person makes movies rather than novels. It's the 'why' of Victor Frankl. In his book, "Man's Search For Meaning", he identifies work as one of the main ways people create meaning in their lives.
Which brings me to the title I chose for this essay. Don’t let a bad idea get in the way of a good time. There is no shortage of bad ideas in the world. Most of them probably felt good at the time. I imagine they do, because I have seen plenty of films built on bad ideas. If you attend enough film festivals, especially those that show a lot of short films, you will inevitably see lots and lots of bad films. (Trust me on this.)
So what if they are? Many of those films will be first films, and you can’t make your second film until you’ve made your first. Get that first one out of the way, bad or good, so you can move on to your second. Hopefully you will make that one better.
Stanley Kubrick deserves his reputation as one of the world’s best directors. He’s certainly one of my all-time favorites. However, his first film, “Fear and Desire”, is frankly bad, in my opinion. That doesn’t diminish his stature in my eyes, or the eyes of the world, because he went on to make so many exceptional films. “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining” might be his most famous, but “Dr. Strangelove” and especially “Paths of Glory” are two of my personal favorites. On the contrary, “Fear And Desire” is a tremendously important film to me: it proves that a bad film doesn’t define a career or a person. (If even the mighty Kubrick…)
Remember, too, that while those ‘bad’ films were being made, a team of creative people got together and made something for the world to see and experience. No matter how the film turns out, each and every one of the crew got to bring their talents, their skills, their soul, to the project. And that opportunity, that chance to be a part of a greater whole, to share one’s spirit and passion through that joint effort, that’s one of the most precious things in the world. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Kubrick and his team felt pretty good making “Fear and Desire”.
Of course we've all worked on film shoots that failed utterly to give us even a glimmer of that uplifting experience. Shoots that were drudgery at best, dangerous at worst. That is a tragedy. Not just because of the danger or drudgery, but because an opportunity for the team to have that sense of fulfillment has been wasted.
Derek Jarman’s disarming 1986 film “Caravaggio” is visually stunning, in large part because of the set design. Jarman said his budget didn’t allow for a big art department; instead, he had to work with a construction crew not used to working with his minuscule budget, and many of them were uncomfortable with some of the film’s sexual themes. His solution? He left lots of coffee-table books of Caravaggio’s work lying around the set. Without having to tell them, his crew perused the books and figured out on their own how to create the film’s striking visual aesthetic. I hope his builders are duly proud of their work, but I’ll wager they all felt more than pride when the film was done.
It’s a safe wager because I have felt that myself. While I was studying for my MFA, I was given an opportunity to help out on a classmate’s thesis film. As an assistant gaffer, of all things. I had at the time precious little experience with gaffing (I still don’t), and yet there I was. You’ll have to ask the gaffer if I did a good job, but I know I did my utmost, and it felt great.
Several years later, I had an opportunity to be an extra in a friends’ short film: Reuben Hernandez' "Settling Up". You can just see the back of my head in the film if you know when to look. But that’s not what makes it a special memory for me. As luck would have it, the sound recordist’s microphone shock-mount broke while filming. He had no spare with him, so this was a major setback.
Luckily, I had some Nite-Ize gear ties in my bag, and I was able to help him jury-rig a shock-mount with one of them. (I had made one for myself after seeing a youtube video show something similar.) I can’t pretend I don’t feel pride in ‘saving the day’. Of course I do. (Please forgive the humble-brag.) But the deeper feeling I treasure is the almost ineffable satisfaction I felt by offering the director more than just the back of my head.
Earlier I mentioned that I am a filmmaker. A writer and director. An auteur, in the language of the cineaste. I still struggle to have that feeling of completeness when I make my own work. In principle, being the writer-director ought be no different than being an assistant gaffer or a bar-scene extra. And yet in practice, it brings all sorts of distracting anxieties. Will people like it? Is this a good idea? What if people hate it? What if I can’t pull this off?
Those anxieties can be paralyzing, and the can easily overwhelm the magic feeling of being a creative part of a filmmaking team.
In the fall of 2011 I started production on a film called “Honk!”. It was far and away the most ambitious shoot of my life to date. We stopped traffic on a New York City street, had stunt drivers, a professional caterer, and enough PA’s that we had different kinds: camera PA, key PA, and so on. It was thrilling. Then I saw the rushes, and was crushed. It was nowhere near what I had envisioned. My budget was blown, and Bob Clendenin, the lead, had flown back to L.A., the crew had dispersed. Re-shoots were out of the question.
My despair erased any memory of the excitement and satisfaction I felt while making the film. I would have shelved the project permanently, euthanized it like a lame horse, had I not run a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film. Many people - family, close friends, and total strangers - were expecting a film. I owed them a movie. I couldn’t bear to deliver them a ‘bad’ movie - which is what I had on my hands. At least, I was convinced I did.
Knowing what I do now, I might have just forged ahead with what I had as best I could. Friends and family would have forgiven me for a ‘bad’ film, if that’s how it actually turned out. Or they might have liked it. Either way, they will still be your family and friends. And the strangers? Why should I care?
That’s not what happened, though. I was stuck, paralyzed, barely able even to look at the rough cuts. Life went on, but I carried the shame of my unfinished project with me everywhere. I was definitely letting a bad idea get in the way of a good time.
In the end, I was saved by an inspiration I had walking home from work with a colleague.
We were getting to know each other, talking about our projects and such, and somehow in that moment I had enough detachment to see a way forward: I would shoot a new film about a filmmaker struggling to salvage a bad film that incorporated the original "Honk!". I went on to assemble a new crew for a brand new set of shoots, and “Honk!” turned into “HONK! HONK!”. No stunt coordinators, just one PA, and catering was take-out and Dunkin’ Donuts. It was hard work in cold weather. And it was glorious. It felt great.
The film screened at the Blackbird Film Festival in 2017. People laughed in all the right places, which was a relief. It didn’t win any awards, but the festival’s guest of honor, SUNY Cortland alum Scott Williams, happened to see it. Williams is currently a writer and the executive producer of the hit series “NCIS”. We passed each other in the hallway between screenings, and he stopped me as I was heading to the restroom.
“I liked your film,” he said. I tried to keep my cool. “You really captured what we go through as creatives,” he went on. I’m pretty sure I managed to stammer a thank you, but I can’t be sure, because I was on Cloud 9.
That was the validation I desperately needed. It made it all worthwhile, I thought.
Here’s the thing, though. It was worthwhile even if Scott hadn’t said anything. If our bladders hadn’t both needed emptying around the same time, he might never had a chance to share his kind words with me. Then where would I have been?
It would have been worthwhile even if he hadn’t like the film. I believed in the film, the crew believed in the film, and we did our best. We did what we love doing. That was enough, only I didn’t realize that until years later.
I would like to suggest that you, my fellow filmmakers, stop and consider your motivation to bother making films. If your motivation stops at art or commerce, all well and good., But please be clear about that when you assemble your team. They deserve to know what they’re getting into and if their values align with yours.
But if even the smallest fraction of your motivation is the joy you feel when you participate in creating something greater than the sum of the parts, stop and think. There’s a good chance its the biggest fraction, but the need to make a living, the imperative to create ‘meaningful’ and ‘important’ art, and the fear of making something bad, overwhelm the quiet need for fulfillment.
Try listening to that quiet need, hear what it has to say. It’s telling you the real reason why you do what yo do. I hope it will change the way you do it, too.
Now when you assemble your team, or when you and your team consider what project to create next, you’ll remember that the most important thing is not to create a great film, or even a good film, but to create an opportunity for you and your collaborators, your fellow filmmakers, to share their spirit, to find fulfillment in the exercise of their craft. You can give them - and yourself, for that matter, no greater gift.
William Goldman, writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Princess Bride”, writes in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, about how difficult it is to predict the success of a film from the on-set experience. In one case, the cast and crew got along famously, and the work went smoothly and easily. In another, the life on set was an unmitigated nightmare, with horrible stress for all involved. Yet the latter film was a hit, while the first one tanked.
Why does that matter? Ask yourself which film you’d rather have worked on. Most of the box-office windfall goes to the investors and producers, not the gaffers, the crafties, the hair-and-makeup specialists, etc., etc. They get paid the same whether the work is a shitshow or a breeze. (If they even get paid, but that’s a subject for another essay.) Since there’s no correlation between the on-set experience and the success of a film, why not do your best to make it a breeze?
Maybe that’s overstating it. The goal ought to be to give everyone involved a chance to do their very best, to feel the joy of contributing their special talents, to be fulfilled. And that might involve pushing people to overcome their fears and inhibitions, their urge to play it safe in their work. But that can be done with love and empathy as well as, if not better than, with anger and intimidation.
I am sure some of you, reading this, are thinking that you’d gladly endure an awful time on set in exchange for working on a blockbuster or a masterpiece. Being honest, I think that often. But there is just no way to know ahead of time. You make your best, and hopefully educated, guess, and you roll the dice.
For example, Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” was so poorly received that Laughton never directed another film, yet today it is hailed as a masterpiece. If only Kubrick had been around then to urge him to keep going!
Jean Renoir’s “Le Regle du Jeu” (”The Rules of the Game”), now considered a milestone masterpiece from a director of many masterpieces, was universally panned, even banned as "depressing, morbid, immoral [and] having an undesirable influence over the young."
Where does that leave us? There is no way to know if a film will succeed or fail from what it’s like to work on it, and there is no way to know if it is a masterpiece from its commercial or critical reception. What’s left for us to look for when we make a film?
Fulfillment, that’s what. The joy of giving ourselves to a process that let’s us feel we’ve become something more than ourselves. What ‘fulfillment’ means to each of us, is of course a challenge for each of us to discover. But the sooner we get started, and the more practice we put in, the better off we’ll be.
Let that be our focus when we set about making films. Let that be our reason for getting out of bed and facing the vagaries and emotional toil of filmmaking. And in service of that goal, don’t let a bad idea get in the way of a good time.