A Non-Lesson In Filmmaking And Life
This blog post is going to be a bit different to my previous ones. This time, I won’t be talking about documentary, but rather, about what it’s like to be a filmmaker, and maybe in a bigger sense, what it is to follow your ‘dream’. I’ll be talking about filmmaking here, but I hope what I’m saying applies to life in general, or at least to artists. So hold on to your hats, it’s about to get real.
The roots of this post come from a few weeks ago when my filmmaking partner and I were talking about this same topic. I asked him the question, “Would you encourage your kids to follow their dreams like our parents did?” We both found it hard to give any kind of answer. Yes, we agreed, it is great to encourage your children to follow their passions and their hearts, but, hard as it might be to make that initial decision, it’s harder again, many times over, to live your passion as a job. And if I were to encourage my children to do like I do now, I’d want to make one thing abundantly clear to them- it’s fucking hard.
Not only that, but it’s heartbreaking, dispiriting and stressful in equal measure.
What brought all these doubts into sharp focus recently was a music video myself and my filmmaking partner were directing. Now, I love music videos. Working in commercial video, it’s not often I get excited about a project or even the filmmaking process. But this one was one I was so passionate about. It was going to be mad, funny and touching in equal measure. It was going to be like no other music video made before. It was the kind of film I’d been wanting to make since I first picked up a camera at the age of 14. We had enough money to make it the way we wanted, with a big, fantastic crew, and an amazingly talented cast that I was genuinely excited to work with.
So why then, at 4am on the night before the shoot was I sitting in a cold, dark studio asking myself why I make films at all and wondering what I could do with my life in the morning when I’d quit film for good? In an earlier blog post, I joked that God Hates Filmmakers. That’s no joke. I’d spent weeks planning every element of this production to perfection, pouring not only all my time into it, but all my passion and creative energy too. Every last detail was planned to perfection.
Until it all fell apart the night before. The whole production hinged on a massive cinema screen and projector that would project these beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds behind the actors while we filmed them. And of course, for no good reason, none of it worked. The screen wouldn’t fit on to the frame; the projector wouldn’t project an image big enough; even the rental company had forgotten to give us the right stand for the screen. And that was it. I remember clearly, standing on top of a ladder at midnight, the moment of realisation that the screen wasn’t fitting on and that all these months of planning and caring and being excited were gone in a moment. I honest to God nearly cried.
Not just at the frustration of the moment, but at the unfairness of it all. And this is what I mean when I joke that God Hates Filmmakers. That you do all you can, that you actually start to care about a project, that you give your all, and that it all comes undone for no reason at all. That you, a mere human, has the audacity to try and shape and control every detail of reality that lies in front of your camera. That you try to create a life and a world and beauty, playing God for a day, and He punishes you mercilessly for it.
Nor is this the first time this has happened. So many times before, I’ve been punished for daring to create, as so many others have. And every time you pick yourself up, you chalk it up to a learning experience, and you vow not to make the same mistakes again. But this time, I was certain I’d avoided all the mistakes and still it had all fallen apart on me.
As the hours ticked by that night and it dawned on us just how much of a disaster this all was, I was mere moments away from ringing our producer, telling her the whole thing was cancelled, that we’d let everyone down and to tell them not to come tomorrow. Then I’d turn off my phone, go to bed and wake up the next day as someone, anyone, else, ready to start a new life where film had no bearing on me.
At this point, I laughed to myself thinking what a great blog post this whole event would make. How I could explain to all you lovely readers what I’d been feeling for a long time- that film was just not worth the pain it caused, all the sleepless nights, the emotional trauma and the constant struggle against the odds. That after all the failed projects and unmitigated disasters, it is with some relief that I’m finally quitting film to do something that just doesn’t demand that I care so totally about the outcome.
But of course, we came up with a solution. So, come 7am, with no sleep, we began shooting. We had no great hopes for the shoot, we reckoned look, nobody will be happy with it, it’ll turn out terrible, but at least we can get it done and not disappoint everybody. But it not only went really well, it turned out better than we could have ever hoped. When the shoot was finally done, me and my filmmaking partner walked out of the set and laughed and laughed at how we couldn’t believe we’d gotten away with it.
While I was delighted with how it went, there’s a part of me that’s still really annoyed that it all turned out OK. That this learning experience was wasted. That all my thoughts about the heartbreak and pain of filmmaking were proven invalid. And, most of all, that I hadn’t been put off filmmaking for good.
Look, everyone has a bad day at work. Everybody is faced with a disaster that happens for no reason. But the difference is, as filmmakers, we are called to care so deeply, to give of all our time and energy and to tie our own self-worth and instrinsic sense of self to the outcome, that we risk breaking ourselves totally with every project we undertake. And, no matter how triumphant the outcome, every project we care about is inevitably an emotional rollercoaster in the worst sense of the phrase.
So the question still remains, why do we do what we do? Why do we willingly put ourselves through this trauma so often for no good reason? Why not just give up and do something easier? Why make films at all? And, every time I ask myself this question, I arrive at the same answer: It’s not a choice. It never was. You are not a person that makes films, you are a filmmaker. It’s not a passion, it’s an obsession. It’s all you are and all you can possibly be. And so, to follow a dream is a dangerous thing. For to have a dream is a burden.
But what can we do other than to shoulder this dream and tread the path to ruin or triumph or both? The only alternative is to ignore that obsession and to not care so deeply. And that is, no doubt, the easier, less painful path. To live a quiet life in full knowledge of what you could have done but to be happier not to have.
I was determined when I was writing this post not to leave you all with a moral lesson. Not to say, oh well, look isn’t it hard doing what you love but isn’t it worth it at the end of the day? Because the only lesson I’ve learnt from all this is that life is random and sometimes terrible things happen for no reason. And sometimes again, these things work out OK. And furthermore, I still don’t know if I’d ever be able to encourage my children to follow their dreams. So all I can do is to leave you with the same question I have now, which is as close to an answer as I’ll get for some time:
What is the alternative to caring at all costs, and is that not an unbearable life?
A still from the music video that nearly broke me. For better or worse, it’ll be out soon.