Hello Interwebs! This week I’m offering important advice for any prospective artists/ creative personalities out there: be better than I am. That’s super vague, but it’s part of my trap to lure you in. Read on! Find out what I do wrong and how you can learn from my mistakes.
I’m gonna come right out and say it: I am a control freak. Maybe that’s part of the reason I became a creative type. I love the idea that, with enough time and effort, the junk that piles in my brain matter can be cleaned out and reformed into junk in the real world. That sounds disgusting and weird, but that’s because it is. I think I’ve digressed some. I’m known to do that. Hold on to that gross imagery because I’ll come back to it momentarily. I was in the middle of saying that I like to control things…
Art (writing, music, movies, painting, etc) is beautiful because, though there is endless chaos in the universe, I can control some of it. Will people ever read what I write or watch the movies I make? That’s a separate issue and I don’t really care (though I hope my work is seen, of course). The real joy is in thinking up and building new creations out of thin air, and knowing that, for better or worse, they’re all mine. Every sentence on this page was created exactly the way I intended it. Writing these articles makes me feel powerful because they provide me an agency which I cannot get in other parts of my life.
OK. With that background out of the way, I can return to that “gross imagery” and we can really get started. Although there is power and agency in art, there’s also a sad truth which will be my first lesson: creation is messy. In the process of making something new, there is so rarely a finished product without unwanted byproducts. Michelangelo probably had a bunch of rubble leftover after making “David”; Nuclear reactions produce energy, but also leave behind toxic waste; countless sheets of paper were likely scrapped in the process of writing great novels; the universe itself needed a violent and powerful explosion to start, etc. Every project varies and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to make something with a minimum of waste, but you have to accept right now that creation is a messy business.
In my case, the biggest “unwanted mess” when making films comes in the form of anxiety. Now, for the record, I do not have any serious problems with anxiety in my daily life. In fact, I thrive on that feeling during the creative process (I’m a control freak and a workaholic, which is a super fun combo for all my friends). Where my anxiety becomes a problem, however, is on the set of Thought Plane Media films during production. From here on, all my examples will be from this previous weekend when our crew began shooting Retribution Isle (TPM’s new suspense thriller).
As much as I gushed earlier about the joys of agency in art, my sentiments were kind of a lie… While true that art provides a sense of personal power, you almost never have as much control as you’d like (Lesson 2). It would be wonderful if all our ideas could be accomplished with nothing but our own drive. But us creative personalities sometimes forget we live in reality, and in reality we generally require help from other people. On the low end of support, we’d like consultants (friends, family or peers) to check our ideas and tell us their thoughts; on the high end, we’d like full financial backing and a crew of experts to bring our visions to life.
Thing is: when you bring other people into the equation (with all their unique personalities, work ethics and ideas), you also come to rely on them, and when you rely on other people you can’t always dictate them. In fact, if other folks provide their money and time, they sometimes end up dictating you. Now, this sounds more malicious than I mean it, but I’ll explain more where I’m coming from in a moment.
Retribution Isle is a project I’ve been excited about ever since Justin came up with the rough idea a couple months back. He basically said “Hey! We’re going to an isolated cottage for a trip, so let’s maybe do a horror film while we’re there.” Perfect! The idea sounded awesome! From here, he and I worked to form a rough story. As generally happens in the TPM process, I ended up taking on the majority of pre-production from this point on (scripting, shotlisting and co-ordinating). I put a lot of time and effort into this thing to get the film ready for the trip. But there was a pretty big catch to all these plans early on: our weekend cottage excursion was primarily meant to be a relaxing getaway.
The film was always going to be secondary. Justin, Matteo and I were all worried about this from the very beginning, considering the film script ended up being over 40 pages. Now, we were all happy with the story, but we didn’t want to spend all our time on the trip working. Truth be told, I actually wouldn’t have minded if we’d worked the whole time. As I said, I’m a workaholic. But the guys understandably wanted to relax some. So, because I’m the co-ordinater, I worked extra hard on finding ways for us to save time and get the film completed with plenty of social time to spare. None of this worked out though…
My carefully laid plan went off the rails right on Day 1. The plan was to meet at the cottage before nightfall (because Justin had to take a boat across the lake and meet us) but due to some unforeseen weather and a few delays, Matteo and I had to find a hotel for the night. This meant my plan for the next day was ruined as well. I was banking on us being able to get an early start.
Anyway, when we finally got to the cottage on Day 2 and began unloading our stuff, we hit another snag: my tripod was broken. The thing was perfectly fine when I’d loaded it in my car on Day 1, but the head piece was missing by Day 2… We later found the head in a very strange place at a completely random moment (a story for another day) but not in time to film any of the scenes this weekend. Justin was ready to call the shoot right there and then, but I convinced him to at least try to get some of the filming done. Luckily our friend Jess (who has a background in photography) was with us. She volunteered to operate the camera during our shoots. That was a massive help!
Back to the story now: because of the long journey up, we all wanted to relax for a while and explore the cottage. Justin gave us a tour and we went swimming as well. The evening was already creeping up on us by the time we set up our first scene of the weekend. Yet another deviation in my plan: the terrain was different than I envisioned, so the shotlists I made (and the subsequent storyboards Matteo drew from them) were inaccurate and, therefore, less useful than they ought to have been. I’ll touch on the final product of this shoot towards the end.
After this scene, the guys were effectively finished for the day. Darkness was falling and they wanted to make dinner. Meanwhile, I was stressing about everything we didn’t get done. The weather forecast said that Day 3 was going to be rainy, so I’d booked out Day 2 for all the outside sequences (of which there are many). Thankfully Day 3 was beautiful. We got off to yet another late start though. And even after we started, we only got 2 scenes done that whole day. Finally, Day 4 brought the bad weather we were supposed to get on Day 3. We still had to get a few shots through (they were absolutely necessary)…
The reason for the team’s lack of progress that weekend comes down entirely to lack of motivation. I’m not passing judgement on my colleagues here. We all work hard for free and this was supposed to be a fun weekend. However, all this is to say I was anxious almost the entire trip about absolutely nothing going to plan. I planned for nearly a solid month to make sure everything went OK, and then weather plus general lack of enthusiasm from the crew resulted in all that planning amounting to very little (for that weekend, at least). Thing is, I tried too hard to control a situation with a huge number of variables. Because of this, I can confidently say that nothing and nobody caused more stress to me than myself.
Branching off that last point, we come to Lesson 3: defer work to other people. Being the head writer at TPM and mostly in charge of pre-production, I tend to get super invested in every project we do. Thing is, I not only get invested– I try to do everything I’m comfortable doing. That isn’t too big a problem in pre-production because Matteo is most interested in production and Justin’s expertise is in editing (we’re a very balanced team that way), but during the shooting process I take on way too much work and end up doing none of it well.
Frankly, I think I’m a sucky director. I don’t really communicate what I’m thinking to anybody and sort of just tell people the bare minimum of what to do. So the crew often ends up confused and time gets wasted. The way I direct is competent, but not very good. Justin flat-out told me on set the other day that I ought to defer more work to others. For example, instead of setting up the camera myself and telling the camera operator to hit play, I should show them the storyboards and have them read through the layout while I do other stuff and trust that they are competent enough to do what I want. Really, I ought to let people in on the plan beforehand so that I can serve to answer last-minute questions on set rather than spend all my time explaining from scratch. Having a vision is good, but keeping that vision all to myself is bad.
Now, deferring is sometimes a risk. Will the crew always do what you want, exactly as you want it done? No. And that’s fine. That’s what multiple takes are for. And, sure, a lot of times the product will be worse for the deviation from your vision. But guess what: thinking that way all the time is egotistical and detrimental to yourself most of all. I can’t even count the number of times something went better than in my head because I loosened up and let talented people have more leeway. You or I don’t always know best. Art requires collaboration, and other people aren’t idiots. You work with them for a reason, afterall. Allow the best ideas to come through, whether they’re yours or not.
Going back to my propensity for over-planning, we come to Lesson 4: Go With the Flow. This is a natural extension of Lessons 2 and 3. When you involve other crew members in your endeavours, and those people have other ideas/ attitudes about work, or unforseen circumstances like weather get in your way, then you must learn not to be so rigid (like I am). It’s OK to change the plan.
Figuring out all the details in advance is good; fighting to stick to them in every instance is not. For example, I had it in my head that this entire 40+ minute film needed to be shot in one weekend. When it become abundantly clear by Day 3 that this would not happen, I shifted my mindset and re-organized. This had a couple of noticeable effects: I became less stressed because there was a lot less “essential” work to get done; the crew felt less daunted because there was less work to do; and we got to take a little more time for the work we did get done instead of rushing through it.
Not all work needs to be finished in one session all the time. Over many years of working at TPM, I’ve learned that people prefer spreading work over multiple weeks to doing marathon-days. Find a couple hours every few weeks to do the job and keep everyone happy rather than demand a full day’s work and burn everyone out. There were a bunch of issues this weekend which changed my plans. I couldn’t fix the issues so I had to live with them. In the end, creative projects should feel more like fun than work.
If you or the crew are feeling miserable then you’re doing something wrong. Ask everyone what production schedule works best for them. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, but remember that individual projects are less important than your working relationships. Particularly with independent productions/ artistic endeavours such as TPM does, there is always enough time to spread things out. It’s better to make a bunch of solid creations over time with a happy group of people than one really good project super fast that makes everyone hate each other.
I have one final piece of advice to impart today: Lesson 5: even if you take all of the above lessons to heart, artistic projects still can and will go horribly wrong. You can account for the “mess”, accept you won’t have complete control, defer all possible jobs and go with the flow, but the project might still end up being a piece of trash. Was it a flawed concept? Bad crew? Bad luck? Who knows? Sometimes, even with a clear vision and a perfect plan executed perfectly, things simply don’t turn out. That’s alright.
All these lessons I’ve given you are to help keep you sane and happy during the production process. Manage that and you’ll almost always feel better about going on to the next enterprise. Here’s a fun behind-the-scenes story about Retribution Isle: multiple scenes we filmed were only saved in the edit. I don’t want to go into specifics (because you’ll never unsee the problems if I do) but certain basic elements of film language got horribly mangled during production. We at TPM been doing this stuff for nearly a decade and didn’t even realize! For all my planning, mistakes still happened.
Don’t set your expectations too high when making art. Just have a good time, try your best and let the process work out however it does. There’s only so much you can do. I’m still learning myself. If you can take away one helpful piece of advice from this article though, it’s this: BE BETTER THAN I AM.
Till next time.