Sunday, June 30, 2013

A journey through maturity

It's been an eventful month. I guess it sort of started at the end of May, when filmmaker/fundraiser Tom Malloy spoke at the monthly Rochester Movie Maker's meeting. Malloy identified 7 common mistakes that filmmakers make, which I'll share with you here:

1. Not firing a pissed-off crewmember. Especially if he's the DP (director of photography), who sets the tone of the shoot.

2. Being too cheap on food. You should have a great craft service table, not just pizza. A Hollywood shoot pays people a meal penalty when they don't get lunch. (I would add to this an unwritten rule I learned somewhere, probably in film school: if you're not paying people then you definitely have to feed them.)

3. Making decisions too quickly, without thinking them through. He seemed to be talking specifically about deciding who to have on your crew. When hiring someone, you should get references.

4. Not focusing enough on the actors and their performances. You can fix technical mistakes in post, but not acting mistakes. Sound is more important than picture.

5. Giving control to someone who can shut you off in a heartbeat.

6. Not buying swag. He said that T-shirts, hats, etc. are good things to give your team, especially if they're not being paid well. (In the interest of balance, I should say that I've heard other people say the opposite, that it's money wasted promoting the film to people who already know about it.)

7. Not having a vision or taking charge. You don't have to be a dictator or asshole, but you need to know where you're going. You need to have a vision so that people will believe in you and respect you.

Some of these things I've already learned, either through experience or from being told by someone else, but it's still advice worth hearing.

He then ended with an anecdote which basically had the following moral: You need to have the fire and the willingness to not listen to people who discourage you.

That's a good lesson too, and one which I personally have found harder to follow with age. As you get older, and farther away from the world of high school and college, you can end up being less and less in touch with other people who share your goals and priorities, making it more of a challenge to keep the flame alive.

I've been thinking a lot about these things because I recently reached a landmark birthday, one that makes you take stock of your life. As it happened, the 1982 classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was playing at the George Eastman House around the same time, which seemed fitting since that's a movie where Kirk finds himself having a birthday and thinking about getting older. So I decided to invite some friends to have a birthday dinner with me and then go see it.

I haven't watched much old-school Star Trek in a while, so seeing this movie on the big screen again made me realize something. If you were a nerdy kid in the 80s who was into books and creativity, and alienated from the world of sports, then Star Trek was practically your only exposure to grown-up virtues like teamwork, leadership, courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. Most other sci-fi tends to be about nonconformists heroically bucking the system altogether, either by escaping it or by overthrowing it. And while that can be a good message when you're an adolescent trying to find your identity and escape peer pressure, it doesn't always apply so well to the working world of adulthood, where you are much more interdependent on other people.

That same weekend, the Visual Studies Workshop had a big sale, which included tons and tons of books on art and philosophy and so on, for dirt cheap. I picked up a fair bit of esoteric and psychedelic reading material, to refuel the creative side of my brain.

When I was in college, the 60s generation still cast a long shadow. There was still a lot of emphasis on being innovative and irreverent, and marching to your own drummer. While that generation had become sour and snobby and censorious by the time I was growing up, I still respected their original emphasis on optimism and creative freedom. And I used to think that sci-fi, as a genre, was part of that, because that was the genre where you could make your own rules and create your own world.

As my generation has come of age and taken over the culture, I've sensed a growing emphasis on hostility and cynicism. It's as if people can't think of any way to make themselves feel important except by resenting and criticizing anyone who's actually made something of themselves. The idea that the role of creative people is to be a punching bag for less creative people doesn't sit well with me. My generation's attitude seems to be that life is just one long struggle to climb back into the womb. The few tentpole movies that aren't just nostalgic reboots of an existing franchise tend to be about the world being destroyed. There's a sense that the past is more comforting than the future.

But if you can manage to escape from people who have that mindset, and look at what the next generation are up to, there seems to be much more friendliness and sociability and willingness to make connections. I know that musician Amanda Palmer had a gig not that long ago where she let fans sign her naked body. I find it hard to fathom having that kind of trust in strangers. I'm much more used to having to have my guard up.

Rightly or wrongly, I guess I learned a different life lesson, from my peers and from the generation before us. I learned that you can expect other people to try to stomp you down, and that you will survive only if you stick to your guns and don't worry about what other people think. But I'm feeling like that lesson has outlived its usefulness.

A lot of the experiences and influences I've had in recent years have led me down the path of satire, of wanting to tell stories that protest and point out what's wrong. But with the modern wealth of entertainment options, people are much more likely to filter out anything that doesn't speak to their existing tastes or values.

People want to be entertained, and that's not a dirty word. But being an artist isn't a dirty word either.

That's the twin challenge I'm facing when trying to write these damn novels. I'm trying to get back to the wildness and freedom and craziness that meant so much to me when I first became a writer and a filmmaker. At the same time, I'm also trying to brush up on my understanding of what a story needs in order to truly click with an audience. Is there enough action? Is there enough humor? Is there enough character? Does it have that deeper level that makes something truly loved, not just briefly fashionable?

There are times when it barely seems worth the struggle, and then there are times when unexpected rewards occur. This past month, to my great surprise, I won a Most Distinguished Member Award from the Buffalo Movie-Video Makers group for my work as writer-director-producer of Saberfrog and co-producer of another feature, Bury My Heart With Tonawanda. The latter film, from writer-producer Adrian Esposito, has a heartwarming message of growth and acceptance and forgiveness, which has moved audiences to tears at screening after packed screening, most recently at the Memorial Art Gallery this past Thursday.

One of my past influences, cult filmmaker David Cronenberg, once said that he makes films in order to find out why he made them. Cronenberg is one of the less heartwarming filmmakers I can think of, but he makes a good point. Art is a journey, which takes the artists – and the people they invite to join them – to unexpected destinations.

So that's the trick – to stay open to new emotions and experiences as much as possible, even when other people seem more skeptical. It may get harder as you get older, but it is worth the effort.