April 1, 2008
Every feature film, EVER MADE, has a war story.
I just finished watching Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which documented Francis Ford Coppola's perilous journey as he made Apocalypse Now. He had to deal with his lead actor having a heart attack, the Philippine government interupting production to fight rebels, and the director himself began to believe his film was total crap. The documentary painted a portrait of a man so obsessed with his vision, that reality and the world of his movie merged into a twisted consciousness. "My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam."
The truth is, Francis Ford Coppola's story of a movie director spiraling into "the abyss" is not unique. After shooting my own film as a first-time writer/director and executive producer, I scoured the internet for blogs about the disasters of indie film making because I too drifted into madness at various stages of the artistic process. Of course, my situation wasn't as epic as Coppola's, but my internal turmoil made me "question life."
Most indie film making blogs, journals, etc... that I've discovered had war stories too. Below are some highlights:
Podcast about a real estate agent and his first movie.
Videoblogs by 2o-somethings who made a film about relationships.
An indie fantasy movie that took 4 years to complete.
(Click on "Journal")
Discovering that many other first-time feature film makers went through hell, I felt a little better.
For the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the programmers recieved 8,500 submissions. How do I know? Because I got a rejection letter from them that explained why my film didn't get in. That's a whole lot of films being made in one year, and I'm sure a majority of those rejected film makers had sacrificed their financial security, destroyed their personal relationships, and some may have simply vanished because of their rejection, never to be heard of again.
Well, I've decided to share my story with you because writing things out helps me manage and organize my stress. I'm someone you've never heard of with a film that has yet to play at a film festival or has gotten distribution...yet. When I tell people in Los Angeles that I shot a feature film, everyone is taken back and they get that wide-eyed look as if they were staring at a nude celebrity photo.
You see, Los Angeles is a strange town where people dress hip, talk tall, dream big, and cry when they're finally alone in their bedrooms. I've overheard the sobs of many roommates, who haven't reached their goals, as I drifted from one sublet to another when I first moved here. In no other city that I've lived in have I seen first-hand how much LUCK has played a role in determining one's fate. This city will rape your dreams or it will make you king. If you decide to move to LA to become an actor or film director, you will spend years of your life toiling around. There's no in-between. You either drive a shiny BMV or a broke-down Honda.
I'm nobody special, I have a Dodge Neon with a missing hubcab. I had simply moved to Los Angeles thinking I was going to be in LA for a few months, just to be able to say that I lived here and then move back to NY to party my life away. Within one year in LA, I shot a crazy feature film that I wrote and directed. I guess that's something to be proud of.
APRIL 9, 2008
If you've never suffered in life to the point where suicide seemed like the only way out, than you don't have what it takes to shoot a feature film.
There are basically five phases to conquer in making a feature film: development (writing the script), pre-production (cast, crew, and locations are secured), production (the film is shot), post-production (footage is cut together), and distribution (film is released). But there is one stage that a first-time indie film maker will experience before the five stages -- realization.
So, let me take you through events in my life that would lead into the realization.
In the early 90's I was part of the alternative inline skate culture. I was an okay skater, but everytime I tried to do rail slides I would get nutted (when you hop on a hand rail and mess up so that you land on the bar between your legs - "nutted"). Very quickly, I ended up spending most of the time with my friends videotaping them with cameras I borrowed from other people.
Growing up, my mom couldn't afford much. So, I spent my youth wearing hand-me downs from older relatives. But somehow, in the Summer of 95' my mom bought me a Canon ES2000 Hi8 video camera, which I still own today. I was so into being behind the camera that I eventually got hired to shoot pro skaters for VideoGroove Magazine.
Eventually I would outgrow the skate culture and go to college. I went to the Academy of Art University. Yeah, art school, baby! For every generation of film students there was always one film that defined their generation. My era of film school revolved around Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. We cut trailers of those movies, analyzed the crap out of every scene, and quoted the film like it was nobody's business. While most film nerds had their list of films to rent everytime they went to the video store with titles such as 400 Blows, Citizen Cane, and 2001: A Space Odyssey... I was obsessing over movies by cult masters such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. They did the most bad-assed movies about lesbian vampires. I owe my exposure to such films to Le Video in San Francsco, that video store stocked EVERYTHING. Who knew that years later, I would shoot my own movie just like my heroes.
And then I graduated from film school and worked for TechTV. As a Production Assistant, I got to write and produce television packages for GamespotTV, which eventually transformed into X-Play -- the greatest show about videogames because it had Morgan Webb. But several years of being a PA, with no possibility of promotion got the best of me and I moved onto a crazy late night talk show called Unscrewed with Martin Sargent. I would experience the unimaginable -- alien ecounters, a naked Elvis, and being escorted home by HR after a company party.
Eventually, TechTV was devoured by Comcast's G4 network and instead of accepting reassignment to Hollyood, I had a flash of inspiration and took my severance package and moved to the east coast. I would rather get my ass kicked in NY, than kiss ass in LA.
Boy did NY beat the life outta me. I had sold everything I owned in SF, my car, my bagless vacuum, and all the 20-something years of action figures and comic books that defined my existence. I moved in the middle of Winter too. Bad idea. I didn't know anyone out there. All I had was a temporary sublet in Greenpoint with strangers that I found on Craigslist. I literally hopped off the plane and hit the ground running. Within months without a job, my whole life savings ran out. The snow was up to my knee caps and Winter began to make my face feel like the severe cold would crack my cheeks open. And to top it off, I got the worst fever of my life that lasted over a month.
One morning, under the influence of flu medicine, the walls in my bedroom started to vibrate. Then the cracks in the walls opened larger and turned into mouths. They spoke to me. The walls told me to just end it right now. I was worthless.
I was in the greatest city in America, but I had no real job skills, a useless art school education, and no future. I thought about the various methods of release, but something in me made me pray. I looked at my cell phone and promised myself that if my mom called me to say hello, I would put a hold on my plans to exit this pathetic existence. A second later my phone rang. My mom called to see how I was doing. I begged her for $800 so that I could pay rent and not steal groceries at C-Town that month. My mom couldn't afford to give me $800, but she could give me $80. I turned it down ...and became a man. I needed that shift in my reality tunnel. Who the hell was I to beg my own mother for money when I was an adult? Within half an hour I scored a job interview, and a few hours later at that interview I was offered the job. Eventually I would work for City Lights Media and MTV. But the experiences I had in NY were so profound that I decided to leave the entertainment industry and big apple behind.
I moved to San Diego in hopes of studying natural science. I was so obsessed with succeeding in school that for the first time, I actually turned down dates to do homework. A few months into school, my weekly test scores started to slip. I went form getting B's down to D's in my Matrix Algebra class. And one day in my Swimming class I almost drowned. That near death experience was so traumatic it affected my ability to focus. A few days later, I would drop out of my Intro to Chemistry class. My high hopes for a new future were diminished.
There was one book I read everytime life became hopeless, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. And his book had a passage that went, "The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist." Everyday, his words helped me regain focus and I did whatever it took to get back on track. I got tutoring and joined study groups. Despite dropping my Chemistry class, at the end of the semester I got A's in all my remaining classes; Psychology 101, English Composition, Swimming, but a B in Matrix Algebra because the A's I got later on balanced out with the F's. I actually achieved beyond an A in my English Class. I could've failed the final exam and still have maintained an A. Well, I saw that as a sign and decided to put to rest my aspirations of being a scientist and pursue screenwriting. Los Angeles was only a few hours up the coast.
Before I moved to LA, I wrote an 8 page treatment for a fantasy movie. Once I arrived I experienced the culture shock of LA. Everytime you walked into a coffee shop there was at least one person on their laptop typing a screenplay. Hmmm, I got a little discouraged. In this town, you're either a have or have-not. I was lucky, though, because I immediately found work as an assistant editor. It was as if my art school education and work experience actually had some real value for the first time. I had always thought my film degree was pointless, but this was LA and art met commerce here.
One of the indie features I worked on inspired me to place my fantasy epic on hold and write a personal indie film that I could shoot myself for a few thousand dollars. After half a year of writing the first draft, I would soon discover that indie films cost as little as 2 million dollars to make. Who the heck was going to give me that kind of money? I just wanted to give up on my dreams again, leave LA, and go back to NY to party my life away.
One night, I was at a bar with a friend of mine who brought someone along that was a banker. I asked if he'd invest in a movie. He said, "Yeah." I was like, "Holy crap." I told him that I needed 2 million. He said that he could put up to 10 thousand. Forget it. What can I do with 10 grand?
The very next day I was getting my car's oil changed on Sunset Blvd thinking about going back to NY and then a freakin' film crew drove by with a camera pointed out of the back of a truck as they filmed actors in a car behind them ...talk about adding insult to the injury. And then a moment later, I was struck by a surge of electrochemical power in my brain -- REALIZATION. There was no way a film studio would produce my $50 million dollar "fantasy" script, it was highly unlikely I could raise $2 million to shoot my personal "indie" film, BUT I could shoot a "B-movie" for $10 grand. The feeling was so awesome it was akin to my life-changing epiphany that inspired me to sell everything I owned in SF to move to NY.
So, you must be wondering why the heck did I spend so much time describing my life events? Well, to give weight to the following statement.
NOTHING IN LIFE PREPARED ME FOR THE UNIMAGINABLE SACRIFICES AND OVERWHELMING HARDSHIP I WOULD ENDURE TO MAKE A FEATURE FILM USING MY OWN MONEY.
- Getting nutted on a handrail -- not as painful as turning down half a million dollars to alter my script.
- Dropping out of school and realizing that I was not smart enough -- not as humbling as compromising my directorial vision on the set.
- Almost drowning in my swimming class -- it makes me laugh thinking about that one.
- A Winter in NY without a job and mental hallucinations -- that was a walk in the park compared to blowing 12 credit cards and blood in the toilet.
I had internal bleeeding from the stress after the shoot as I believed that I wasted all my money. And I had been out of the job loop for months to shoot my film. Unemployement + maxed out credit cards + nothing to show for + no health insurance to allow me see a doctor = suicidal thoughts. I planned to lock my film up in storage and move quietly back to San Francisco and live on my sister's couch while I would pursue a career in real estate. But of course, that didn't happen.
Steven Pressfield's The War of Art was parked on my bedside table and I read a passage from it every morning, "Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys, flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because these candy-asses don't know how to be miserable. The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell... he will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. The artist must be like that Marine... He has to love being miserable... Because this is war, baby. And war is hell... It's better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot." That fixed my head, real good.
As months went by after the insane 13 day film shoot, I re-envisioned my film in the cutting room by inventing new scenes with the 16 hours of footage we shot and edited out everything that wasn't part of my creative vision. It's an incredible low-budget movie and I believe the cast and crew, who sacrificed their time and sanity for it will be pleasantly surprised with the final product because it's nothing like the script and nothing like the footage we shot. Minty: The Assassin is a
bad-assed movie about lesbians, martial arts, high heels, and science.
If you're a film maker about to shoot your very first feature film and you're going to fund it with your own money, please be responsible to yourself and to everyone in life you affect by thinking very hard about it and know that you will give up everything -- family, friends, financial security, sanity, happiness, just about everything. It will become do or die, literally.
I don't come from a wealthy family, I was only able to take on my goals, like living in NY, studying in SD, and following my dreams in LA because I had something to fall back on -- my prestine credit history. My moment of realization was so great, that I took the greatest gamble of my life and put my financial security on the line. Now the future of Minty: The Assassin rests on you, the audience.
And to switch your reality tunnel, once more: Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness
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