Monday Morning Musings: The Curse Of Being A Persistent Optimist... In The Film Biz
( and a few recommended readings too!)
Happy MLK day! It takes time but the arc of history bends to justice, and in that spirit today’s musings are on the time all change takes. And don’t be worried; this is post is not as long as it looks, as the latter half is really just links…
They tell you that the sign of insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect a different result. That this is so frequently proven wrong by the stories we tell, is but one of the many reasons I love making films. The fact is: we change. We grow. And those around us change and grow. You can’t actually do the same thing twice because you are no longer the same person you were back then, even if the “then” was just yesterday. Sure we relapse and repeat ourselves, but that’s processing.
Many of us have struggled with something our entire life but that doesn’t mean we aren’t dealing with it. We DO grow. And not only do the people around us do the same, but the system that we are in, as well as the system that is within us, can also change and evolve. It does; and it can do it more than it may do now. That can all be beautiful and inspiring, as hard as it is to see some times. How can we see it more clearly? How can we shift our eye line to see the beauty and not the pain?
When I was starting out in the film business, I tried to be the best PA anyone had ever witnessed. But undercover I was always a struggling producer. I was sure it was ever going to work out. Virtually no one could see that. I produced nine projects that I totally failed at, before I got a first movie off the ground — or rather before the director I was working with, Hal Hartley, got his movie off the ground and asked me to help. My fantasy life about the movies I was going to make was definitely where I had the most fun at that time. Those dreams shaped my reality and eventually both the system and myself changed.
Simultaneously as I was trying to prove I was the Plato-ian form of the PA, I had hustled my way into reading and analyzing scripts for about a dozen producers or production companies at that time. If I was not working as a PA on 15+ hour days, I had a pile of scripts to read and write reports on (at a time before computers and word processors, when it was all done on typewriters and notes). Between scripts, I was either nodding off or dreaming of what I hoped I could eventually do.
There’s nothing like reading a script or two or three a day for weeks on end to make you feel like you’ve somehow jacked into the pop subconscious. We all get the same inputs, so it is not surprising to see we have similar outputs. I had read Sartre’s Nausea somewhere around that time, and I dug how the Self-Made-Man did not trust any idea he had unless someone else had the same idea first. Seeing how many scripts were the same to any degree made it clear to me how we all do live in the same world even if most of us our focused only on our own problems. It gave me hope that eventually we all have to look or walk in the same direction, as different as our shoes may be.
I’ve written before on what my early producer dreams were, how I had hoped to just have the ability to earn a living and do good work in a somewhat secure fashion. I didn’t want money in any significant way. I wanted the dignity and consistency of contributing my labor to something larger than I was that did no harm and lifted us up higher. I knew I wasn’t alone. I was in NYC at a time that many of us shared the same goal. But we change. And we work in a system. Or rather several systems. And those systems work within us. And we change. Sometimes we don’t realize how much we change until we are at a place and doing things that our former selves never would have set forth on, or could’ve if they wanted to. But we change.
Having folks around you that feel somewhat similarly is very inspiring. I stepped back into blogging because I needed to be inspired. I did not feel I was getting what I needed from those within my own community. I did not feel I was getting it from the social media that I put so much hope in. The industry trades certainly weren’t delivering that. And I had already stepped away from some of my professional commitments precisely because I wasn’t getting the inspiration I craved.
My freshman year college roommate, Matt, had what many thought was the greatest job in the world. He found it inspiring, but it certainly wasn’t a job for me. That said, not only have I always thought it would be a perfect profession for a film character, I have also found it a good metaphor for the holistic sort of producing I wish was the norm. Personally, I think we need more producers who are clearly vested in the building the roadmap to the filmecosystem utopia. And I think that requires the metaphoric throwing of bombs and the willingness or thrill of skiing through the avalanche they initiate. But for us, it can’t be a lonely job. We need a full ski patrol of avalanche setters.
Freshman year too, Deborah introduced me to The Germs and this line from “manimal” has stayed with me since:
“Evolution is a process too slow
To save my soul
But I've got this creature on my back
And it just won't let go”
Darby lived it; until he didn’t. I just feel it. But maybe that’s a childish perspective I am still clinging onto. Maybe if I squint and shift my vision, I can see through it, and shed this curse.
I went to NYC in the early 80’s because I trusted I wouldn’t be alone in what I felt and wanted to do — and that proved true. I jumped onto to Substack at the end of last year because as much as I felt otherwise, I knew I wasn’t alone in what I wanted and wanted to do. It’s been inspiring watching folks subscribe, inspiring when they comment and conversations spark, but even more so to start to find more voices out there feeling something similar. We need a change. We need to think deeply about what we are doing and how we are doing it. We need to find the alliances to build something together.
But I have held this hope for about 35 years now. I wrote this post almost 30 years ago, but it could be today. I gave this talk almost fifteen years ago, but it could be today. Our community definitely has evolved in many positive ways. Filmmakers have many more options now and they know how to use most of them. My thinking has grown and become more refined. I think I do my work a lot better than I did before. But the boulder is just as big as it ever was, and I think it is a heavier weight on our shoulders each year.
I trust you’ve read Chris Moore’s Dear Producer posting from last Wednesday (I linked to it in the Substack chat when it dropped and it would have been great to talk to more of you about it then, just saying). I trust you’ve read Brian Newman’s SubGenre newsletter for some time now. And of course you read Nicole LaPorte’s Ankler piece of the Producer’s Struggle. Where is the person covering this beat, but not from the perspective of another old white dude who got in at the right time when the getting was good like myself? I know they are out there, and Rebecca Green definitely is doing a lot of it at Dear Producer thankfully. But I want more. I am the hungry ghost. I know we will find it, love it, and be inspired by it. I know that we all will be able to work together. I know it will get better.
But it is sure hard when you believe in something and the goal is too far down the road to ever reach it…
And FWIW I do find it so much more satisfying to read from the perspective of someone who is living it and doing it than from that “journalistic” or hype viewpoint that comes in the trades. Just saying… We need more of this. We need more personal writing from wide ranging perspectives. Maybe it’s time for YOU to start a substack? Maybe it is time for multiple people to come together and start a filmmaker perspective substack? If you want to change the system, if you want to make it better, you have to do the work and share the work. You have to be willing to speak, to speak up, to speak truth to power.
But that curse? The one that I put on the top of this post when I sat down to write less than an hour a go? It is the one that I wrote this recognition about how we get through our struggle to last week. I was speaking to myself then as well as others. The curse is that it takes so much time. It moves soooo slow. The road gets longer, the hills steeper, and the boulders heavier. It is isolating and feels like a burden that will always just be your own. We feel it so desperately. Why is it so hard to move things forward? Why can’t we better organized? What gives us hope that we will ever get there? Because we do get reminded time and time again that the other is true. We are not alone. We do change. Things do move forward. It is all a continuum.
I need to let Darby Crash go. I need to embrace my inner lumberjack:
“There’s a point where you are now planting trees that you are not going to see harvested,” she said. “It speaks to something larger than yourself. … Your work is living on, and someone else will benefit from your efforts in a tangible way.”
Friends thought it was a joke of some sort, when I said that if I had known that a film like Moonlight or Parasite could ever win the Oscars I would have really worked hard and gotten something done. I have worked hard and I have gotten a lot done. Those films of theirs did win the Oscars. But the best part of it is that they really did deserve that recognition.
And I do believe we will get to a place where don’t need that recognition, where great work is made on a regular basis, has a rightful impact, and everyone is compensated for their contribution, collaboration, risk, initiative, and persistence. The curse though is still the distance from here.
Can we all stay in shape to be able to scale all those other mountains? Can I have your back if you are so far ahead? Can you get mine if the boulder I am pushing is so damn big? And what happens when we realize it was a false summit?
Do you read and subscribe to Peter Broderick’s Distribution Bulletin? These opening lines of his last issue should wet your appetite:
THE WISDOM OF TRAUMA was viewed over 4 million times during its 7-day global virtual premiere. The revenues in the first week were more than enough to cover the film’s entire budget and fully finance the filmmakers’ next film.
This unprecedented release was designed and executed completely independently by the filmmakers and their teammates. No distributors were needed, and none were involved.
Wow! Right? Maybe it’s just the unicorn, but still… You can read all 48 of his Distributions Bulletin here. What better way to prepare for Sundance or any festival in this era of the Old Way Crumbling…
What else? What else have I read and think you may enjoy?
As “storytellers” (gag, I now hate that term FWIW), have we all become liars. We don’t even know how to tell the truth well. Did you read the NYT piece about the fiction of true tales?
The NYT is killing it with some thought provoking articles on the industry and where we are headed. Frank Pavitch, the filmmaker behind the doc on Jodorowsky’s Dune, did a beautiful service with “This Film Does Not Exist” on the use of AI. It is a #MustRead/#MustSee:
“What will it mean when directors, concept artists and film students can see with their imaginations, when they can paint using all the digitally archived visual material of human civilization? When our culture starts to be influenced by scenes, sets and images from old films that never existed or that haven’t yet even been imagined?
I have a feeling we’re all about to find out.”
Interesting times we are in.
We all love classic films, right? But they don't always look like they once did... Let’s nerd out shall we?
And if you dig that, these two come courtesy of David Bordwell:
Some comparisons of 35 and digital video are here (scroll down to the bottom):
A deep dive from Barbara Flückiger surveying the history of color in film. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2021/02/21/historical-film-colors-a-guest-entry-from-barbara-flueckiger/
And you want an indie film hero?
Can we even count as high as we’d need to to be able to say how many people NYC’s Film Forum has inspired? Karen Cooper ran it for 50 years, and she’s retiring. What a gift to NYC and to film lovers everywhere. I believe that was her first job out of college. She chose well. Most of choose wrong. Starting out in the movie biz? I think one shouldn't be a PA if you are a writer or director. Get one of these jobs instead, & write on down time with a clear & open mind. But in thinking that I left out such an important part of the chain. How do you get your scripts read? @cherrycola tweeted to me: “If I hadn’t worked for people in the industry no one ever would’ve read my scripts. This is terrible advice.” Ha! They may be right!
Have a great week. Sundance starts. I am going to do a bit more writing than usual I suspect. Most of it will be online and not sent to your inbox.
With regard to change, one change in film themes that I think we're beginning to see is "What the hero can't do."
I'm kinda fascinated with films that move from the masculine to the feminine, and I've seen this pattern repeated in numerous movies made over the last couple of decades. Two films that show it clearly (and there are many more) are "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Gravity."
You might see in these two films (as well as others) a pattern that keeps recurring. Both Beasts and Gravity share the same DNA of having a sick or dying father figure being replaced by a reluctant young woman or daughter. And just like the Film Noir movies that emerged just after World War II, the repeated pattern films that move from the masculine to the feminine mean something.
When Sandra Bullock re-enters the atmosphere and lands in a lake at the end of "Gravity," George Clooney — who has up to this point been a classic male movie hero — is unable to be the hero and, instead, literally floats off to the stars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, wet and exhausted, Sandra Bullock's character crawls onto a sandy beach hinting at something akin to an evolution.
I’d commit to writing an on-the-ground Substack with a few of you. Say if four people got together and each one wrote one post a month -- that’d be a post every week for readers, while still being low touch and low commitment for the writers. A growing document that travels thru time in a sustainable way to become a body of work rather than a burst of it is ultimately more interesting and feasible anyways. Any takers wanna chat?