in the thick of it

Yeah, so it’s a cliché. It’s a good one!

It’s an apt one. A little over a month ago, I began work on my next short film project. As I said in a previous post, I pretty much had to go back to the drawing board with my team and my vision. It was a big deal. It still is a big deal, but it’s not as horrible as I thought it might be. Not at all. My new director doesn’t have a ton of experience, but she doesn’t let that get in the way. I’m really excited by what she’s brought to the table, and I can’t wait to see her grow. I even picked up a very driven cinematographer. I had no idea what a joy it could be to work with someone like him. In film school, we were all developing our eye, so… although I had worked with a few, it wasn’t at all like this. It’s the core of, maybe, a new team. I don’t want to get ahead of things, so I’ll leave it there. Maybe a new team. 🙂

As for the project itself. Wow. I have never felt more outside my comfort zone and in the deep. Being a producer sucks–and it’s awesome. I have so many people to talk to, elements to draw together, people to hire, fire, and placate. It’s a great experience, and it’s definitely stretching muscles I never thought to develop. On the flip side, I feel like I’ve lost a creative step in the process. I’m a little less involved in the actual production than I’m used to, because my head is overloaded with all these strange logistical concerns. (Not the least of which involves my ever-expanding, non-existent budget!) Forms upon forms to organize, get signed, keep together. Last minute brushfires to put out (they don’t have an 85mm macro lens anymore!). Outsiders to bring in only to learn shortly thereafter that they might’ve spoken in haste and really don’t have time to get involved.

That’s one of the hardest lessons. I already knew that people aren’t always reliable. You prepare for that. But sometimes it hurts when certain individuals you were really counting on just don’t come through because of… reasons. It reminds me a little of what happened over the summer, and some might say that I’m asking for it when I don’t take a firm stand on the issue. Just tell them they’re fired! Or write them off. Definitely don’t beg. It’s true. I could be tougher. I have been tougher, but it’s those lost relationships I miss most and wish I hadn’t lost.

Well. I’m learning.

Meanwhile… I suppose this would be a good time to plug? Sure. Let’s plug.

So my new short film is called “The Lazarus Bridge.” It’s about a young woman who’s dealing with a very unique, very difficult client at work on the day of her mother’s funeral. It stars Meghan Bordeaux (find her here, here, and here) and Matthew Hallstein. It also co-stars Isaiah Grass (catch him here, here, here, here, and here) and Journie Kalous (see her here and here). A truly gorgeous and gifted cast. And it’s directed by Crystal Contreras, a very passionate and talented filmmaker on the rise, I assure you. Our first shoot day is done and behind us (hopefully behind us), and it looks pretty damn good so far. Our final two days are this weekend, and I’m sick-excited (mostly sick) to see it come together. If anyone is interested–and, of course, you are ;)–you can check out some of my company’s work on this and previous projects.

Instagram

Twitter

Facebook

I’m still working on an official webpage. (Anyone know a good web designer?)

It’s been exhausting so far, and there’s a lot left to do (post-production, anybody?). And then, of course, NaNoWriMo is about to start too. 😦 Damn. Why aren’t there enough hours in the day? Well. Somebody wish me luck.

 

James

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when things don’t quite work out

So where did we leave off? Ahh yes. On a high note!

Well. Summer came and it’s slowly on the way out. Shot, edited, and promoted the company’s first short film, That’s my D*ck! And in retrospect, I feel as though I should’ve included a disclaimer. It’s not a porno, it doesn’t have nudity, it doesn’t even have swearing (I think). It’s not offensive in the slightest. It’s just a play on words. But I didn’t say any of that, so more than a few times I got the troll lash for pushing what people thought was a porno. Lesson learned!

Not so long ago, I had a particular vision for my film company. That vision, alas, has become muddled in the last several days. I’m looking at starting from scratch (with the exception that I now have a short film under my belt and some hard-earned experience). I’m no stranger to failure, few of us are. Trying and failing is easy. It’s the getting back up to try again that’s hard.

It’s coming up on ten years soon, since I decided to steer myself toward a future in filmmaking. I’ve made a few strides, I’ve second-guessed myself a million times, I’ve screwed up even more than that. But I can only do what I think is best. I’ll miss some of the relationships that have been lost, definitely the friendships. But I can’t let the setbacks get in my way anymore. I’ve spent too much of my life nursing old wounds and sulking over past failures. Not this time.

Ever since I started writing seriously, I’ve been hyper-critical of my own work. If I don’t think it’s the best I could do, then I don’t feel especially accomplished even though I finished it. This was a problem in film school. I never owned the work that I wasn’t proud of. Maybe the hardest lesson I can learn from all of this is that I need to stand by my work. Even if it’s bad. And as I read in another blog, especially if it’s bad. I have permission to make… not-good stuff. But I can’t step away from it or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

I produced That’s my D*ck! It was a hell of a ride planning for it and shooting it. It was a slog editing it. And I don’t know what to say about the end product except that I’m proud of it. I didn’t show that before. I didn’t know how to. But I am proud of it. And I’m very proud of all the people who helped make it possible, and there were many.

Own your work, good or bad.

Get back up.

And move forward with confidence.

Are you listening, self?

so what do you do? me? i’m a writer

Going to try some visual aids. Don’t get used to it.

Sunday was an extremely busy day, involving a great deal of socializing far beyond anything I’ve done since college. Technically, the socializing was all business related but at my level of filmmaking, the notion of networking-by-hobnobbing makes it hard to tell the difference.

Trust me, we are all working hard.

Trust me, we are all working very hard.

Let’s see… meet with a hip-hop artist/producer, check. Then meet with a fellow filmmaker/assistant director, check. Follow shortly after by birthday dinner at an upscale (by my standards, anyway) restaurant with people I’ve never met before, check. And wrap up with an impromptu pre-production meeting at a friend’s house. Oh, and there may have been falafel and nausea-inducing hookah somewhere in there.

like here

like here

Sunday was a twelve-hour day, chockfull of all sorts of interactions and project planning that I imagine a full-time filmmaker does when he’s not filming. It was exhausting and emotionally terrifying for an introvert like myself. And with the exception of a few social hiccups, I loved every minute of it.

these guys may not have exactly observed the love

these guys may not have exactly witnessed the love

It was a day of introductions like “I’m a musician,” “I’m an actress,” and “I’m a producer.” And while I’m 99.9% sure none of us actually do those things for a living, what we said is absolutely true because we were describing our true selves. It was the first time I ever found myself in such an environment, where everyone was so unafraid to reveal that much about who they really are. We spoke of ourselves as we saw ourselves. As creatives. As artists.

Maybe I’ve been a writer and a producer all along. Maybe I’ve just let society, internet trolls, and my own negativity tell me otherwise. That I’m an office temp, or a security guard, or an unemployed sad sack. It’s that old argument of when a writer can call himself a writer. Does he have to be published first? Does he have to be paid enough to support himself? Or is he a writer when he gives himself over to the craft–and writes?

I think… well, no, I want to believe that it’s a matter of belief. I am what I believe myself to be, not what I do to earn a paycheck. Of course, there are probably some exceptions (I’m not an astronaut, for example), there are some caveats. And, in the case of writing, elitists and jerks the world over will be quick to judge and strike down anyone who dares assume the mantle of “writer” in the name of professionalism and butthurt. You know what I’m talking about. Friends and family members who want you to be more practical, think more practical. Mortal enemies who say you haven’t jumped through the right hoops yet.

No, I’m not a paid writer, or a published writer, or even a professional writer. But I’m a writer, dammit. I remember a moment at that dinner when a young woman asked me what I did. Without even thinking about it, I told her I was a writer and producer. And I didn’t feel the least bit silly or phony.

writers, directors, musicians, oh my!

writers, directors, musicians, oh my!

Because that’s my true self.

Oh. And here’s some cheesecake from the dinner.

because cheesecake

because cheesecake

same as last time

Writing is an art.

“Duh,” you say. “Shah,” I reply, to quote my favorite high school English teacher. Here’s my point. Writing is not a science. It lacks quantifiable rules and hard absolutes. We like to believe that distinguishing good writing from bad writing is obvious and universal. Hemingway and Thoreau good. Meyer and Paolini bad. You won’t find me in disagreement about those examples, but this notion of determining the quality of writing stands on shaky ground. It’s completely subjective. True, there is a craft to writing well. One needs look no further than Campbell’s monomyth, but we’re describing cross-cultural truths and themes, not laws.

I love, love the works of R. Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson. I think they’re exceptional writers, true masters of the craft. I aspire to shape my storytelling like theirs: non-traditional, epic in scope, rich in philosophical nuance. But a lot of people would disagree with me. Patrick Rothfuss and Christie Golden have legions of fans defending their every word, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading them too. I’m convinced they’re glorified hacks.

Damn. I’m starting to sound a little resentful, aren’t I? This isn’t the direction I want to go, so allow me to get back on track.

Writing is subjective. There.

Ultimately, only you can decide if you’re a good writer or not. (Or if your preferred author is good or not, but I’m going to focus on “you the writer,” not “you the reader.”) Only you have the power to say if your story works or not. No one has the power to tell you that your stuff is weak sauce and be right. Because writing is, pardon my language, fucking art. It’s not some geometry proof where you missed a step and messed it all up.

So… why, then, does it hit us so hard when the feedback we get isn’t the feedback we were hoping for? It’s not that we wonder if our writing sucks. Okay, it’s not only that we wonder that. It’s that we want our work to be understood. At least that’s how it is with me. In a way, yes, I’m referring to the old adage that our writing is personal and comes from our own experience. I don’t care if people think/say/write that my writing sucks. I’m confident and comfortable enough to know that it doesn’t. And I really don’t care if my writing is appreciated, because I write for me. I don’t write for validation, kudos, or Kit-Kat bars. Because in my heart, I firmly believe that writing is about communicating. And I think everyone wants to be understood.

The editor who has been working on my manuscript is very good. Excellent, even. I can clearly see in her notes that she’s intelligent, intuitive, and a skilled communicator. The work she’s put into my manuscript has been exceptional, and I would eagerly refer other writers to her. Still. I’m not sure she really understands what I’m trying to do. Or maybe she does, and my manuscript really needs a lot of work. It’s something she and I will have to discuss.

As I said in my last post, I have not been the best at identifying weaknesses in my own storytelling efforts until long after the fact. I guess it’s not so unusual to say that we writers have some blindspots when it comes to our work. But that’s not the case with my manuscript. I went into it knowing that it would lack certain elements traditionally considered essential or, at least, desirable. Telling stories in medias res requires some adjustments. The reader needs to exercise some patience and have faith that, by the end of the story, their initial questions will be satisfied in one way or another. It’s a common technique, in literature and film, but mainstream films tend to rely heavily on flashback sequences to fill in the blanks. I wasn’t going to do that, at least not in the same way I’d seen it done. My manuscript would ask more of the reader, and I’ve succeeded for the most part. Maybe too much. My editor may think so, and so maybe my blindspots persist.

I’m also hyper-critical. Of myself and others. I’m very good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) at identifying weak points in others’ stories. Camera angles look that look askew. Lighting that distracts. Acting that doesn’t convince. Dialogue that falls flat. Plot choices that strain credulity. (Yeah, all cinematic stuff. I’m a little gentler with literature.) And with my own work… well, I’m extremely nit-picky about my choices. (Not so much here in the blog, though. I work hard to stay relaxed.) I agonize over every character choice, every twist in plot. It all has great meaning. And I want to be understood.

when the feedback you’re hoping for isn’t the feedback you get

No, no clever title this time, though I admit this may still confuse some people.

When I went to film school, I had a lot of big story ideas I couldn’t wait to translate to the screen. I’d been writing for so many years, fantasizing about my stories appearing on TV or film. I’d spent days, then weeks and months developing characters and story arcs… maybe I was a little light on theme, but the hope of further developing my ideas pushed me to step way outside my comfort zone twice and move across the country to attend film school.

If you ever hear someone say that filmmaking is a collaborative art, it’s completely true. And in some ways it isn’t. Unless you’re gifted with superhuman speed, stamina, and masochistic tendencies, you need other people to work alongside you–a cast and crew. When we’re talking professional (Hollywood or “indie”) productions, there’s really no way around that. You just can’t make a film by yourself. But when I say that filmmaking isn’t collaborative, I mean that as the designated “filmmaker,” the person with the vision and the need to make this film (whether that makes you the director or the producer), it’s really all on you to push and make sure you succeed. Like with writing in general, it can be kind of a lonely road. Your vision guides the shape the story takes. Your perseverance steers the project through the inevitable tough times. (Yes, I know all about the studio system. Let’s not pop open that particular can of worms.) It may be that you’ll invite others to participate in your storytelling process, of course, but the product should reflect what you want. Don’t look to someone else to make those final creative decisions, because you’re the filmmaker. (There’s a really great text called The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide: Financing, Shooting and Distributing Independent and Digital Films
by Jon M. Garon
that describes this concept of a “filmmaker” in its opening chapters.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t take this lesson to heart while I was at film school. Despite all my hard work, I never fully “owned” my productions, and the quality suffered for it. And for as long as I was in school, I never really understood why. I never even noticed the problems on set, or during post-production, not until it was too late.

My classmates saw it but if they knew the real reason why, they didn’t say. Despite that, they still saw more clearly than I did. They pointed out the obvious, of course. (Obvious in hindsight.) Visually, a lot of my work was a mess. I couldn’t argue with it. But I was sure the story, the script, was solid at least. Feedback on that part was minimal. Neutral. Needless to say, I was crushed. It wasn’t until I switched from a Directing concentration to Screenwriting that I finally started to received the kind of feedback I was looking for.

Except it wasn’t the feedback I was hoping for.

My professors–and especially my thesis committee–and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on my scripts. Technically and lyrically, they had nothing but high praise. Thematically and otherwise, well, I can only hope that they just didn’t get what I was trying to do. Whether they did or not, though, the feedback was discouraging. In the words of one professor (whose opinion means a lot to me), “It’s beautifully written, but I just don’t see why I should give a shit about these characters.”

Those words, even now several years later, have never left me.

it’s a wrap… sigh

Yes, I know it’s cliche. Forgive me.

This past weekend was crazy, stressful, exciting, tiring, sweaty, and truly productive. We shot and wrapped my film company’s first production. A short film, some might even call it a skit. I call it a milestone. I was sure up until the day of that something would go awry and we’d have to cancel it. And with the one exception of a missing piece of equipment, it went off without a hitch!

Yes, friends. I am in that post-production (but not yet post production!) glow, and now it’s time to kick my social media campaign into gear. With that said, here are some key links I hope you all check out and decide to follow:

http://www.facebook.com/dancingwombatproductions

http://www.vimeo.com/dancingwombatproductions

http://www.instagram.com/dancingwombatpr

http://www.twitter.com/dancingwombatpr

By the way, my company name is Dancing Wombat Productions. 🙂 Why? Well… the short answer is I like wombats. Look them up. They’re odd and adorable and can probably claw your face off if you’re not careful. The longer answer is that the “Dancing” part of the name is a dedication to a friend of mine who died not long ago. She had dreams and hopes, and we worked together briefly on helping each other pursue those dreams and hopes. I never want to forget her, and I want my efforts with my company to help honor her.

Finishing principal photography on this project is the culmination of months of work, despair, wallet-emptying, and stepping way outside my comfort zone. I made a lot of connections with people I never thought I’d meet. A talented and easygoing director. Fantastic actresses. A jack-of-all-trades musician and production crewer. And other people have supported me in this endeavor in so many ways. My mother, various friends, even some co-workers. There are so many people who deserve credit, without whom I would never have gotten to this point.

Hah. This is starting to sound like an acceptance speech at an awards show, isn’t it? Alright.

This whole thing is all the crazier considering the writing projects I have going on at the same time. My work on my manuscript is being taken to the next level with a very skilled editor. Plus I’m working on another manuscript I hope to self-publish sometime this year. It’s been such an uneven month for me. I’m a pretty impatient person, and sometimes it’s felt like I haven’t been doing anything or getting anywhere. And there’s plenty of areas in my life where that is still the case. But in this one area, this creative area, I’m beginning to see results and I can barely believe it. Of course there’s so much more work to do on this first project alone, but… no one can ever tell me I haven’t done anything ever again.

out of the way, fear

The past two weeks have been unexpectedly stressful. Early on, I visited the doctor for a very overdue physical. While he examined me and ordered a battery of standard tests, I finally took the opportunity to also get tested for a particular health concern I’d been worried about for years. Until that day, fear had always prevented me from getting checked. Fear that the truth might be horrible. Fear of what that could mean for my life. After all, I hadn’t exactly made the wisest choices when it came to my health. And there had been certain symptoms that were potential indicators.

So I got tested. The days passed. I tried to focus on other things. It wasn’t that hard, really. Life goes on and so forth, right? Plus there have been very good, exciting things happening right now. Manuscript progress. Production company progress. Meetings with new people. I’m really thrilled and surprised by it all. But as I drew closer to my follow-up appointment, I was reminded more and more of the step I’d taken. If something was wrong, there would be no more chances to pretend otherwise. God. I looked back on all my crappy decisions with regret.

Finally, the day came, and I no longer had any idea how I ought to feel. Hopeful? Pessimistic? Blasé? What did it matter, really? The results were the results, regardless of how I faced it.

Bless my doctor. He wasted no time and began with those results. First he said it, then he showed me. I was in the clear. All negative. It wasn’t until then that I realized the enormity of the anxiety and doom I’d wrapped myself in.

It’s been a revelatory experience, feeding not just the storyteller in me (as most experiences do), but forcing me to reassess a lot of things in my life. In a good way. But the doctor wasn’t’ done with me. After running through the rest of the lab results (I’m in surprisingly great shape, given my appearance), he threw me a curveball with an unexpected diagnosis. And while it’s not nearly as serious as what could’ve been, it’s still a bit of a game-changer that demands some radical changes. I’d already been on the road to change, but now there’s a real necessity to pursue it a little more aggressively.

A co-worker told me to consider it a wake-up call and not something so negative. My mother agrees. They’re right, too, though it’s harder to apply that perspective than it is to agree with it. Despite all that, I’m incredibly lucky. What surprises me most, I guess, is that I actually feel lucky.

buck the trend

It’s been a while. I know. I’m really awesome at putting things off, but I’ve gotten a lot better at not doing that lately.

In fact… I have some ridiculous news. I am starting a production company. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve started it… or I will be starting it shortly? Not sure how that works. I have not yet registered it as an LLC, but I believe I have found a lawyer who is going to take me through that process as well as some other legal necessities. But I have bought equipment. I’ve assembled a slate of projects.

It’s all been part of the process of the… the new me. Or maybe the old me coming out from a decades-long hibernation. But I’ve been fighting my fears, and I’ve been pushing through a lot of them. I feel more confident. A lot of things have taken a turn for the better.

It’s strange, for a cynic like myself, to feel hopeful and positive.

It’s even stranger to feel excited about something. To feel sociable—though still not all the time—a lot more than before.

There’s a lot of work to do still. I have to learn Twitter. Or find someone to handle my company’s social media. I need to finish my demo reel. (I think I’m about 80% there.) I need… to either hold a casting call or find an alternate first project. And I need to figured out a schedule and budget.

And somehow, I can’t wait to dive into it.

facts aren’t truth

Tomorrow is my birthday. (Although WordPress has seen fit to date this post for tomorrow instead of today…?)

There. I said it. I never admit it when the time of year comes around, though. The whole… revelation feels awkward and like it’s fishing for compliments or something. It comes off as some form of bragging to me. I understand not everyone feels that way. It’s cool. I don’t begrudge you that. (Oddly, I have little trouble confessing to others how good of a writer I think I am, but that’s another story.)

Some people find birthdays celebratory. Others, depressing. I usually oscillate between the two, ending with some mix of both. This year, though, my birthday brings to the fore my subconscious sense of failure. Things unaccomplished that easily could’ve been if I’d tried harder. Or if I’d tried at all. Mistakes I shouldn’t have made if I’d used better judgment. Opportunities lost because I hesitated or was afraid. Emotions I lost control of and still struggle to figure out.

Just a few days ago, I was feeling good. Maybe even happy. Better than I’ve felt all year, and that’s no exaggeration. Then it all came crashing down for a reason I’d rather not get into, but suffice to say was not supposed to be terrible at all. My world tilted, and I’ve been flailing about since. To compound the problem, life at home has taken an abrupt, ugly turn and I find myself wishing I could be anywhere else but home.

I’ve struggled for weeks, for months to find the words. The words of a writer, of the writer I know I am and the writer I really really need to be. I’ve wrestled with the ever-growing fear that maybe I have nothing to say, and there’s nothing worse than a writer who writes nothing. I’m not really talking about writer’s block, either. No, this is a different creature. This is a matter of “who cares?” When I say a writer who writes nothing, I mean a writer who writes vacuousness. And I don’t mean bad writing, either. By and large, the idea of good and bad writing rests with the reader, not the writer. Only the writer can judge if what was written was worthwhile or without purpose.

I’ve struggled for weeks, for months to find or even manufacture the will to care. About myself–my health and my future. About the people who… who matter to me. I’ve fought to take hold of my life and not simply drift aimless in the deeps, to care about consequences and about rewards too, choices made and missed and decisions still to come. I’ve fractured every friendship I ever made. Through callousness, through insult and insensitivity, through simple neglect. Worse, I’ve lacked the fortitude to even try making amends. But also, I haven’t really… cared. And to care requires passion and energy and awareness and even self-love. Things I’ve only had passing contact with since before the year began.

I make no excuses. I ask for no pity or sympathy. Hell, I’m not even trying to explain anything. I’m just battling to find my words. But please, forgive my rampant use of cliché. I imagine it may cheapen the things I’m saying or cast doubt on what I’m trying to convey. Sometimes, though, we can only fall back on the words that come quickest–if no others come forward. I wanted to say something. I needed to, and it didn’t really matter how the words spilled out.

I always knew where each bad choice would lead. I wasn’t blind or ignorant. I knew I was driving myself toward solitude and alienation, toward stagnancy. I knew. And I never lost sight of the promises I made and failed to carry through–or even actively steered away from. I can offer no reasonable defense except that I didn’t care.

But I was blind to one thing.

There is no going back. There’s no return to yesteryear, to the days When Life Was Better. I can’t recapture my youth. I can never be the boy I used to be. I can’t even mourn him, because I can’t even reminisce him. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. The past is gone, and all the promise it held. What’s left is what stands here right now. And… it’s something, too. I’m someone. I can be more. It’s… it’s not too late. Is it? So much wasted. So many bridges burning. Relationships left for dead. I can’t outrun the life I’ve created, not even for a day. But I think I can still run toward the creation of something new, something I know was supposed to be. I think. Tomorrow is my birthday. That’s unavoidable. But what will it bring?

merry… i mean, happy holidays

There’s a rumor going around that we can’t say Merry Christmas. I suppose the most obvious thing to do would be to confirm whether that’s true or not. And what if it isn’t? Will that stop me? Not really. Of course, I don’t plan on saying that anyway. 🙂 I just don’t like to say it. Yes, call me a humbug if you must. (Now that’s a word I like to say.)

So this past weekend, we decorated the house for the holidays for the first time in… well… let’s say double digits. I can’t remember the last time the house smelled like pine (authentic tree!) or had lights, or mistletoe, or wreaths, or a Nativity! But we do now. I’m even staring at my Santa hat as I write this. Everything’s come out of storage this season. And it feels strangely good. (Strange, if you know me at all. Not so strange for regular people.)

I’ve been sidelined most of the week with a bad back. (Yes, I know I should see the doctor.) It’s improved the last few days, thanks to Icy/Hot, Aleve, and a big pillow. But before that, sitting and walking and standing were uncomfortable. I didn’t think much about writing. But I am writing. Which… leads to my big problem.

I know the wisdom as well as anyone. The more you poke at your story, the more it’ll unravel like a knitted sweater. And yes, a story is never “done.” I’ve heard it all. Hell, I believe it. And yet… I’m poking at my story. I’m examining what many have called flaws in the past, and I’m taking the time to consider agreeing with them. What would my story look like if I accepted that what they’ve said is true? It would look… different. So. That’s what I’ve been doing the last couple weeks. Taking that path less traveled, that what-if road. It’s okay. But I wonder if it’s really for the best. I still look back on what I “finished” and I still believe in it. Am I wasting my time? I’m not sure, because I’m super curious about what this new result will be. I’ve done the hard part–I’ve outlined the changes. It seems to work well. But it’ll take a little time.

I hope it’s not just some sort of subconscious effort to delay.