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…)

Director Stanley Kubrick holding film camera.
Stanley 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.

Portrait of director Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman

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.

Close-up image of actress Kristen Adele as Laura in the short film "Settling Up"
Kristen Adele as Laura in "Settling Up"

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.