“Our worst fears lie in anticipation,” Balzac once wrote and that is how I feel heading into pre-production of any project I’m working on. I sit there and think about all the problems. I think that people won’t understand my work or worse: that they didn’t even read it. I think that my work isn’t good enough and doesn’t deserve the accolades it gets. I think about all the other talented writers out there who deserve this so much more than I do. Above all else, I sit on the edge of my seat and remember what failure felt like. Failure is different for every individual. One of the reasons that the current content coming out of Hollywood and New York is that writers and developers have lowered their expectations so immensely that failure now feels like success. Such a statement sounds counter-intuitive, but it is precisely because it strikes the normal person this way that the studio establishment believes that this is what success really looks like.
You have to make sacrifices in life. Good judgment is knowing when you’ve sacrificed enough and cannot go any further. Anyone who’s sat in a pitch session knows that it’s not about having the best ideas, quite the opposite in fact, it’s about having the most ideas. This is what screenwriters call “stacking your deck.” Make sure you have so many ideas that they can’t stop talking to you. If you’re really good at what you do you can make it seem like the one project you’re most enthusiastic about is something you haven’t really fleshed out. This is playing the expectations game. I had an agent who gave me the sage advice: “never go in there with your best idea, always wait until they’re ready to throw you out then hit them with something that will blow their minds.” That advice worked for a time, but no advice is universal, and eventually you’ve got to put your best ideas out there or you face the very real possibility that they simply won’t see the light of day.
When I started my career as an undergrad I had a very simply philosophy: get in, get out, and get on with your business. I wasn’t all that interested in people or small events in people’s lives, my interest was writing. I needed to use all my spare time for my writing. I still employ a great deal of this philosophy in my daily life. You see, I’m not as smart as people think I am, so when other people are out there hanging out with friends or whatever I’m working on perfecting my work because I know that I’m not going to make it on talent alone. No one can make it on talent alone. There will always be someone better than you, smarter than you, or more prepared than you. You need to be able to work harder than all these people if you’re going to get noticed. This is what artists have to do just to stay alive and it’s a big reason that you rarely here artists remembered as being the life of the party. Having a strong work ethic is the easiest way I’ve found to earn respect. Perhaps it’s because I’m not as witty as I’d like to be or as clever as I should be, but I believe that if you work hard enough on something you will get the attention you deserve.
I rarely feel daunted when I start a new project. I get excited about all the cool new things I’ll get to do. When I start a production I don’t look at the end game. The fastest way to failure when you’re working in film is spending all your time picturing the end result and spending no time figuring out how you’re going to get there. There has to be a balance of course, but if you sit there thinking only of the end result the more dismayed you’ll be when things start to stray away from that vision. Indeed, the more flexible you are, the better your chances are at actually finishing your project. A lot of people think starting a project is enough and don’t think about finishing it and that’s another problem. If you spend all your time thinking of the notoriety something is going to get you or the benefits that you’ll receive from a project you’re going to be incredibly disappointed. What I’ve learned is that the best projects are the ones where you can harness the talents of everyone involved to exceed expectations. If you’re a hard worker people will expect big things from you, but if you can turn those around you into better workers and better thinkers then you’ve done something truly remarkable.
The key to running a successful production is finding a way to utilize all of the talent you have at your disposal while making everyone feel important. Of course, in order to get all this talent you have to write a really great script, which is easier said than done. After you write that great script you’ve got to find the “right people” for your project, which is a process that is as agonizing as the project itself at times. Many people have this misnomer in their minds that if you’re making a movie then you have a lot of money behind you. This same idea percolates in writing as well. A lot of people tell me that I should just write a vampire book and make millions like that’s an easy thing to do or something. These people also don’t know that I think the whole vampire craze is ridiculous and I have no interest in vampires. It’s easy to say something is easy if you don’t have to put in all the hard work yourself to get the tough things done. Writing a screenplay and getting it produced works in a similar way. A lot of folks think that it’s just a matter of writing a script and then getting it out to production companies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you have a ton of connections or an agent with tons of connections you will not be moving your screenplay through coverage. The better route for many writers is to simply make the film themselves. Work with independent production companies to make the film and then go the festival route in order to get distributors on board.
Getting everyone on board for the script and the key ideas that you want to build on is a fight in and of itself, but it can be very difficult to utilize everyone’s talents once you get to that point. You need to make sure that you have the right people doing the right things. Oftentimes what someone says they’re really good at and what they’re actually good at are two different things. Once someone has it in their mind that they’re good at something it becomes very difficult to convince them otherwise. Half the battle is often just getting someone to realize that they’re not as good as they think they are. The rest of it boils down to getting them to a point where they’ll still be willing to work on another aspect of the production. It’s a giant chore to be sure, but pointing someone in the right direction does have its rewards. There is a culture that exists in film production as well and in this culture there is a sub culture that believes productions should take months instead of weeks or weeks instead of days. These folks are on set for the “fun” of it. Filmmaking is fun, but if you’re having fun on set chances are you’re doing something wrong. It’s a lot of work being on set and you’ve got to be willing to do a lot of things if you want to have value on set. If you’re a director or a producer your primary job is oftentimes getting the people that sap the energy out of the production off your set. You would not believe how many people bring other non-essential people onto a film set. Before you know it you’re dealing with a small army of people who are yelling at you because “this isn’t any fun.”
Productions aren’t without their excitement. There are a lot of really interesting things that happen on a film set, but you’ve got to understand that there are people who are part of the problem and people who are part of the solution. The people who are part of the solution bad mouth the people who are part of the problem and vice versa. Separating these folks becomes a daily challenge and if you’re not questioning why you got into it at the end of the day you’re probably part of the problem. The true professionals see the problem with having too many distractions around which is why they tend to want less people on set. Generally speaking, the fewer people on set the fewer problems you’re going to have because there are fewer people there that are “non-essential.” You need to have your DP on set, you need to have your actors on set, and you need your cameramen, sound guys, etc, but you don’t always need ten grips on set. If you can get by with just one or two then you’re saving yourself some time and hassle. This kind of less is more mindset tends to evaporate on studio lots. I’ve found myself in situations where I had no idea what anyone’s real job was on set. It’s not unusual to have a sound guy helping with lighting or an AD helping with just about anything, but if you don’t know what anyone’s real job is chances are you’re in trouble. Everyone has some sort of talent which is why they’re on set to begin with if you lose sight or lose track of what that is you’ve got a huge problem on your hands and chances are that it’s going to extend the amount of time you’ll be spending on set shooting. At the same time you don’t want people to have to be forced to wear name badges, but to be fair this is normally what it comes to. There are worse things that can happen.
All in all creating art is more of a spiritual process than an aesthetic one. If you look at a production as being one dominated by aesthetics you’re going to be greatly disappointed because things rarely turn out the way you want them to. The key is to get everything good enough so that you can live with what you’ve done and this gets me back to why studios are so happy to put out really bad material. You oftentimes lose focus of what you were trying to do in the beginning when you’re working on a project because hey things happen. This oftentimes leads to diminished expectations. You may have wanted a perfect shot, but when you’ve got a camera that keeps having problems or an actor that doesn’t like the scene oftentimes you’ll take what you can get. Studios accept this kind of stuff because at the end of the day they just want to get it out there. Indy filmmakers on the other hand put together a superior product because they have a spiritual connection with their work and they realize that this might be their only chance to prove what they can do. You get complacent in the studio system and it becomes a job. There’s a reason that even creative types have had it with studios and that reason is that studios treat filmmaking like a job while artists treat it like what it should be and that’s art.