Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Festival premiere, and time to reflect

It's been a busy week or two in the world of Saberfrog, but first another flashback:

Three years ago today, I met Liz Mariani, the Buffalo-area poet who played Laurel. This was the most difficult role to cast, and I'd sent casting notices out through my filmmaker contacts in Rochester and Buffalo. Liz responded, and also mentioned in her email that she would be performing some of her poetry at the Merriwether Library in Buffalo. This was a Sunday afternoon, so I decided to simply attend the reading to get a sense of what she looked and sounded like (though I think she'd sent some photos by email). She struck me as a good fit for the role, so I introduced myself and we arranged to meet at a future date to discuss the project and role in more detail. We met up at a couple weeks later at a restaurant called Kuni's To Go, where we went over the character and some scenes from the script and she said she was interested. And the rest is history.

Back to the present …

On Monday of last week, I got hit with a massive cold (possibly stress-induced) that laid me out flat. However, I was scheduled to be interviewed for the film for a public access show, and this had already been rescheduled several times, so I managed to suck it up just enough to take part. I tried hard to disguise my lack of energy as modesty and restraint, rather than the illness it was.

Saberfrog has been a huge part of my life for the last few years (I started working on the script around this time in 2006), so after all that time I don't have much trouble answering off-the-cuff questions about what the movie was about or how it was made. I must have performed well, because a member of the TV crew told me afterwards that the interview was good and that she was very interested in seeing the film.

Six days later, this past Sunday, Saberfrog was screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival. This was the first festival to accept the film, and I'd been looking forward to this big event for two months. I had planned to do much more publicity this time. I'd even hoped to have merchandise to sell; I'd started to write the first of the fictitious books mentioned in the film, hoping to have it completed in time.

Once again, though, I completely ran out of time and energy. Although the film was finished, the workload at my day job prevented me from expending much creativity on anything else. Although this should have been the most important screening yet, I found myself doing less publicity than ever. I did at least manage to get news coverage, which is a first.

Attendance at the screening was modest – the people who came to see the film were all friends of people who'd worked on it. I'm fine with this, since this was the third showing of Saberfrog in the Buffalo area and anyone who really wanted to see it had probably had their chance. (And the couple other BNFF screenings I've attended so far were no better attended than mine.)

But every time there's a public screening of Saberfrog, it always seems to come at the end of a big struggle. As a result, the film's final scene always gets to me, because it marks a point when the protagonist has survived a painful crisis and is ready to move on.

About nine years ago, I had an unpleasant experience that forced myself to reexamine how important filmmaking was to me and whether it was worth jeopardizing other aspects of my life. At that time, I decided that the world of film was taking too great a toll on me and that it was time to focus more on the career path I'd stumbled into in my day job – a life in corporate America, developing software and other products. And for a while, I was happy, believing I'd escaped a life of instability and madness. Suppressing my old artistic ambitions eventually took a toll, though, and that's how Saberfrog started forming.

Saberfrog is about many things, but one of the big themes is the conflict between a worldview based on emotion and intuition and doing what you feel like, and a worldview based on knowing what the rules are and learning to work within them. On one level this is a conflict between youth and maturity, but on another level it's a conflict between my dreams of being an artist and my efforts to survive economically in the digital age.

I've felt myself shifting back and forth between these two states, like a werewolf. And Saberfrog reflects that internal struggle. But one side or the other has to win, and I'm starting to feel that history has made that decision for me.

As a filmmaker, I'm a 70s kid at heart. All of my artistic heroes saw art as a means of self-expression, a way to exorcise their demons and to communicate with the outside world. In their day, making art wasn't something that everyone did; it was something you had to go to school for (as a filmmaker, that might be the only way you could even get access to the tools). You had to get away from the boondocks and head for urban areas that had a better concentration of people who shared your interests. Art was put on a pedestal; you experienced it in galleries or darkened movie theaters, and people who were capable of artistic creation were regarded with admiration.

Obviously, the culture now is very different. For better and for worse, there's a much more irreverent attitude towards the arts nowadays – partly because the last twenty years have seen so many pompous snake-oil salesmen in the art world as well as in Hollywood, and partly because modern tools allow pretty much any self-willed person, anywhere, to make a film or self-publish a book or write a blog.

While I've been chasing the dream of being a filmmaker since I was a kid, up until recently my dreams were always based on the old standard – get the film shown in theaters, and get a distributor to pick it up and make you famous. I've known for the last couple years that the distribution part of that dream is dead, but I'm started to think that the theatrical part of it might be dead too. Showing the film to an appreciative public audience is the filmmaker's dream, but I'm no longer sure how interested people really are in the theatrical experience when it comes to indie films by unknown directors. People seem content with watching films at home on their computer. And the love of full-length indie features may not quite be there anymore either. Maybe shorter work is the way to go.

Also, to make yourself stand out in a crowded marketplace, you really need to be a relentless self-promoter, which I really haven't been so far. Digital tools allow the indie auteur to be a one-man band, but sometimes you do need help from other people whose strengths are different from your own. Any future project I embark on will have to be more of a team effort.

Which brings me to one other challenging aspect of the modern digital culture. When I first started to go to indie film conferences and hear about “transmedia”, I understood this as a fancy term for “franchise.” But I've read essays and blog posts from people disputing this; the sexy aspect of transmedia seems to be that it is interactive. It's not just an artist dispensing material from on high; the audience is invited to take part as well. That's where my old ways of thinking break down – for me, creating art was always an alternative to being social, not a means of being social.

I have plenty of ideas left in me about Saberfrog and the world it takes place in, some of which seem to suit the new digital world fairly well. I have other stories and concepts in me that might have similar potential. But I'm thinking that the time has come once again to reevaluate my priorities. I can't do it alone anymore.

I have few regrets about making Saberfrog. I learned a lot, I raised my game enormously as a writer-director, and I made several new friends who are eager to work with me again. But I need to rethink, and recharge, before I embark on such a challenging creative project again.

Catching the Express, an RIT film I acted in recently, will be in the SOFA Emerging Filmmakers program at the Rochester 360|365 film festival. The show is Saturday April 30, at 2:30pm at the Little, screen 5. So life goes on.

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