When you are in the thick of writing, producing, directing, and posting your short films it can become incredibly easy to begin to look at your work through burdened eyes. The sleepless nights drag into sleepless weeks. The pressures and anxieties of pre-production transform into the brief ecstatic bliss and occasional panic of shooting, leading to the inevitable re-grounding of the vision of what you directed in the reality of what you shot. This process is difficult. It can be invigorating and enlightening but it can also be grueling and mind-numbingly challenging.
Through it all though, you can’t stop loving story.
Twain wrote a really great essay about this phenomenon. In Twain’s example, he became a steam-boat captain because he loved the river. With the passage of time however the beauty and grace of the river began to devolve into the series of problems that the river represented to him. Suddenly the river began to communicate only labor and challenges rather than beauty and passion. Twain ends his essay by reflecting on what a terrible loss it would be for a doctor to come to see his fellow human beings as sources of challenges and labor rather than as things of beauty.
So when I am confronted with the list of challenges and the weight of obligation that storytelling in general and filmmaking in particular demand from me I try very hard to remind myself to not stop seeing the depth and beauty of this work – I try to remember what stories fundamentally are.
The lessons I learned at the beginning of studying this craft – as a stage actor and director – were largely about that basic thrill and love of executing story. To an outsider this may seem so plain and simple an observation, but it becomes a most difficult thing to hold onto.
Stories are the way that we attempt to attach meaning to events through a series of symbols and archetypes usually laden with intense universal emotions.
That may be a description of what stories are but it isn’t a description of what stories are capable of doing. Storytelling is capable of changing people’s lives. Stories are an injection of ideas battered and caked in emotion straight into the main-vein to the deepest crevices of the soul and mind.
Stories are the hope that we turn to when we’ve been kicked, cheated, and abused to the point of wanting to surrender.
Stories give the inspiration we need to have the courage to pursue virtue and confront vice.
Stories show us models of living and experiencing that are completely different from our own – that inspire us to change the way we look at the world itself and the most basic conduct of our lives.
What I am always trying to achieve in my writing, my producing, and my directing is an elevation of the process to the same heights that we elevate the product. I want the process of my directing to be an enriching and meaningful experience for myself and for all people involved. Never at the detriment of the product, but always for the preservation of its integrity and for the reinforcement of its power.
On at least one film in college I achieved this to my total satisfaction.
We were on Tybee Island in the winter time amid the blustering cold wind. We were filming my project “The Reconstruction of Henry Morris.” which told the story of a writer who had compromised is artistic integrity. He travels into his book to confront the characters who he betrayed. Ultimately, he releases them and rediscovers his love of storytelling. Discovering that love again, he concludes the film with the realization that he’s ready to start his next book.
Because of the small, low-to-no budget nature of the film I was able to focus as much on the process as I was on the product. The result was an incredibly enriching and therapeutic experience directing the film. Many involved in the process found that the act of making the film was an experience that carried emotional and personal weight.
What I attempted to do in directing the project was to take the baggage of my own depression and anxieties and use these as fuel for determining the visual look of the film – initiating the blocking – and directing the actors. In utilizing my method of submersion direction I was able to incorporate the actors own fears, doubts, and anxieties into the performances of the film.
I also embraced the phenomenological experiences of the “making” process of the film. Creating a landscape of books half buried in the sand involved getting on my knees and burying these books myself. An emotional act that translated shockingly well into the product itself. In directing the actors I would often seek to incorporate the phenomenological experience of the cold winds and beach environment as a external source of internal feelings.
All of this contributed to a filmmaking experience that I’ll never forget – one that helped me create a product with unique power and substance that wouldn’t have been there if the film and been made at peril of the process.
I am pragmatic enough to recognize that not every film – not even one percent of films – can hope to elevate the process to this level. With some budgets and some productions the demands of the product are such that the process inevitably must suffer for the sake of the product. On many of my larger scale productions this was also the case.
However, remembering that the process has a way of infinitely enriching both the experience of making the film and the film itself always encourages me to seek ways of incorporating process oriented filmmaking into my craft.
Reflecting on the power of stories, and continuing to strive for a methodology that makes the process as valuable to the filmmakers as the product, I hope to never lose sight of my version of Twain’s river. I hope to always see it for the thing of infinite beauty and grace that it really is.