When I sit on a panel at the Seattle Film Summit or any film festival, I often feel like I’m talking at the air. Hopefully something I say has weight and sticks. I mean I really hope someone in the audience will glean useful tips towards making their own films. This week I spoke to 9th graders in Walla Walla, WA, a place largely untouched by the film community. If teaching teenagers is difficult on a regular day, trying to impress upon them how every classes they’re currently in can relate to film was a challenge. But the take away, for them and for us, is the long-term investment.
For kids in high school, their goals are simple: take enough classes to graduate, get marks high enough to get into the college of their choice, begin the steps towards a career in something that interests them. I guarantee none of them think of their day to day like that. And even fewer filmmakers do. But that’s exactly what I have learned over our last five years as an independent filmmaker.
I cannot tell you how many green filmmakers come to us with an “idea”. It’s usually a grand idea for them, and often very personal. It’s also not a very interesting story to a wider audience. Two people in a coffee shop is super easy to film, it’s also super boring. My husband and I partnered in film about five years ago. Since then, we’ve seen dozens of shorts and one feature through. We made a pact that we would only make films we wanted to see. So when a filmmaker comes to us with a dull story the first thing we ask them is “why do you want to tell this story?” If they can’t answer that question, we pass. If their answer is blasé, we pass. If they have no intention of putting in any of the work to make it happen, you guessed it, we pass.
Filmmaking is not a quick turn around. Often there are long hard hours in development, pre-production and post can drag on for months or even years. The production- actually filming- is probably the most exciting phase but it’s also the shortest. For our first feature we were in development and fundraising for five months, shot for 18 days and post for a year. Three years later and a lot of tough-love-learning as we went, we have a UK and US distributor and are finally seeing fruit of our labor.
Think about that for a minute. Over a year and a half to actually MAKE the movie. Another year and a half to see the film into distribution. That’s the equivalent of spending the whole of your high school or college years with a single goal in mind. If you are not interested in the film your making, or it’s a dull story, can you imagine pouring 3 years of your life into it? My guess is no.
We also never stopped. Even though our feature was in post, we kept going. We made three more shorts and a music video to follow up. My husband snagged a feature and a short film in post and we both worked on a couple dozen commercials. All while continuing to pursue a course for our first feature. It’s paid off. This fall we will see our first feature film in distribution, and have the road paved for our next feature.
There were three points we left our students with and I’ll share them with you here.
1. Learn Everything You Can. Every class you take can relate to a career in film. It’s impossible to tell a student whose favorite class is gym that they have a career in film, but they do. Ever seen a Marvel movie? Able-bodied individuals with a passion for athleticism are going to have healthy careers making movies. I reexamined my US History courses writing my last screenplay and I am constantly in needed of people who excel in math to help me budget our films. The student with a passion for cooking is able to cater my film and the student who really only cares about computers can program my special FX. I’m constantly reading books and blogs from those who have gone before and I learn something new from all of them. Never stop learning, and always embrace the little things. You never know when you might need that course you once took on geometry to measure the distance and angle from your camera to your subject.
2. Define Your Success. The allure of the red carpet and an Academy Award is difficult to resist. It’s also not the truth for the majority of filmmakers. But success can be. I’m reading a book currently by a filmmaker you’ve never heard of, who earns a comfortable living making and selling films. There’s a documentary on Netflix titled I Know That Voice about actors whom you probably know but couldn’t pick out of a line up. Filmmakers in my hometown have screened their films at Sundance and Toronto and Cannes. They’ve sold those same films to Netflix or you can watch them on any of your digital devices. I know them- but you probably do not. My husband and I are full time filmmakers, and it’s probably this is the first time you’ve heard of me. What we all have in common is that we work as filmmakers, and have done so for several years. Success is not defined by how famous you are. It is defined by the quality of work you have created that allows you to continue providing for yourself and your future.
3. The Long Road. We were very naïve as filmmakers when we set out. We made a single short film our first year. The second year we made 3. The next? Eight shorts and one feature. It took time to plan them all. It took time to see them finished. It took time to see any sort of return on them. But we kept working, kept pushing and continued to follow through to the end of each goal. It’s been a three year process to get our first feature into distribution. The short films all ended up online, and we’ve made some money off of all of them. It took patience and perseverance to follow through. If you give up after the first rejection letter or the first project that falls through, you’ll never see the end of the road. The writer/director of The Fifth Element had that script for fifteen years before it became a reality. Now he has 56 writing credits and 21 directing credits. Kathryn Bigelow directed for thirty years (some pretty amazing films) before the Academy recognized her work.
The same thing I told those 9th graders is what I’d like to leave you with. Find your passion, find your voice and keep going. The future belongs to those who move forward.