A Writer Director Responds to the Article “Disclosed” | A Brutally Candid Account of Indie Filmmaking
Taylor Hess’s article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” struck deep with me, so much so that I was compelled to write this response. I’m not a producer by choice. I’m a writer/director, and out of necessity, I produced my first feature film, The Purple Onion. I didn’t wait around for anyone or for the perfect conditions. I worked with trusted people around me and we did it, we made a movie and it got distribution. Now I’m in the process of packaging my second feature film through ICM. Again I’m my own producer. And as a writer director who produces, I’m now writing this to tell you, dear reader, that if you really want to make your film, in whatever capacity, there is nothing stopping you but you.
In her article Hess writes that “Producing is about love, […] — loving the movie, above all, and continuing to love it over the years and decades of its existence.”
I’d extend this point to say that filmmaking itself is about love. As a filmmaker you have to love what you’re doing. Love is what keeps you writing and developing late at night and through the weekends, month after month, year after year. If you love your project, others will see this. They will feel it. If you don’t love your project, if you don’t love your vision, if you don’t get excited about that next thing you want to make, whether it’s a short, feature, experimental, any creative endeavor, I’m sorry to say, but you should really consider a different line of work.
When you love that next project and are determined to make it, you will inspire others to help you. If your collaborators love your project the whole process will be more enjoyable, if not just a little less painful. However, still this is not enough. Because even with all that love, the chances are against you, and you likely won’t get that actor, or financing, you won’t get that big festival premiere, or that distribution deal, and that talent agent won’t be knocking on your door. And that’s okay. Because no matter what, you still love filmmaking.
“The job [of producing] requires managing financial uncertainty, combustible personalities and so much pressure,” Hess writes.
Chances are you likely need a day job to survive. A nine to six. Working full time comes with its unique challenges. How can you keep that dream of filmmaking alive when there aren’t enough hours in the day? You end up living simultaneous and distinctly parallel lives. By day you’re a company man, talking the talk of your workplace. Maybe it’s Italian cuisine, financial projections, or content strategy. Whatever it is, you play your part. By night, you’re a filmmaker. You write scripts, track indie producers and directors, create moodboards. You don’t just watch films, you study them. All this while planning how you will make your next film.
Occasionally these two worlds collide in spite of your best efforts to keep them separate. You take a call at the office to chat with a potential collaborator. You chat with your EP who has news that he’s now repped by ICM, which is great for your project. He tells you about the covering agent your script has. You find out what a covering agent does. All this excites you. But you can’t express that excitement at the office. You don’t want your filmmaking to jeopardize your livelihood — for your pursuits to be a distraction at the office.
At work, your job requires you to put together projections and schedules. You lead meetings, collaborate with teammates, and try to be a good worker. But it also feels like you’re not really there most days, as if you’re on autopilot. You suddenly snap out of it when you read an email from your EP and find out that the actress you really want as lead is available in the month you want to shoot. That day at the office you stay in for lunch and examine her IMDb page, reading about her past projects for the third time that week.
After a ten-hour work day you go home and get to your other work. You revise your script for a couple hours, respond to emails, begin writing an introductory letter to that actress, which will go out with the offer. But by then it’s 2:00 AM and your vision is blurry from exhaustion. You haven’t slept more than five hours most nights lately. You also haven’t gone to the gym or stretched or done anything physical in the last five months.
With development progressing on your project, with your script now ready, going to Sundance would make sense. Maybe you’ll meet people who can help you make your movie. So you take your vacation days to go. At work, preparing for that week out of the office your anticipation seeps through. You can’t help but dish out a few tongue-in-cheek humble brags about sending colleagues a selfie with you and Redford on the red carpet. But, when you return, you realized you never saw Redford and you don’t recall any red carpet. You know you shouldn’t have joked like that because now your colleagues know too much. You play down Sundance so not to draw more attention to yourself.
“Striking a healthy work/life balance in a job in which work and life can unhealthily merge is a one of a producer’s greatest challenges.”
A work/life balance is fiction, especially as a writer/director. There may be glimpses of balance, but it’s fleeting. If you want to be a filmmaker, there will be long stretches of time, maybe years, maybe decades before things take off. You will grind and grind, and your health, relationships, and sanity may suffer. And the crazy thing is, remember, things may never take off. Expect that you will have to work overtime, all the time. Expect that you will endure overwhelming stress. Basically just expect the worst. But also remember, if you love filmmaking, you will endure all this knowing that you’re following your dreams.
I didn’t mention this earlier but you’re also pursuing your master’s degree. You started this low residency online program at Emerson College a few months before you got the full time job. Nights and weekends you alternate between developing your film and the demands of school work. Fortunately, school requires you to analyze movies and scripts, and write about them, which is informing your approach to your next film.
For over a year you’ve juggled this full-time job producing online content, while finishing your script and embarking on development, and also while pursuing a master’s degree. You want to think this is all a testament to your diligence and determination to succeed in movies, but you also consider all this a masochistic penchant for busy distractions from you don’t even know what.
Juggling these separate and simultaneous tracks, you admit, has made you fatigued. The job afforded you the ability to move your project to the the next level. You have begun building your team. You’re on the verge of attaching your female lead. The experience at Sundance got you promising connections with producers and investors. But at work you can’t focus on your tasks with the same needed precision as before. The growing verve regarding your film is getting the best of you. At school you’ve also made too many excuses with professors in the last couple months about missed deadlines and poor quality work. Something’s got to give.
Not long after Sundance you leave the full-time job. This leads you to a whole new set of concerns. You don’t have much savings. You’re still paying off debt from your first film. And the loans for the master’s degree are not going to pay themselves. You give yourself a few months of frugal living to figure out what’s next. You keep reassuring yourself you’re onto something big.
“Charged by emotional exchanges, linked visions, aligned dreams, and a unified camaraderie to build something bigger than just one person, the partnership between a director and a producer can feel intoxicating. Perhaps this intimacy is part of the thrill of the work, but it’s also the burden.”
You should sense a kindred spirit in your actors, DP, sound designer, composer, with every key person on your film. Yet you default as your own producer. Not only is chemistry between collaborators such a nuanced thing, you tend to do things solo in terms of top-level matters, taking on a bulk of the burden yourself. You don’t necessarily want it this way, it just happened because you’ve never wanted to wait for the right person. You just did it yourself. However, you know that you’re now at another level, and you’d benefit from having creative partners with whom to develop and strategize the whole process. You seek out what Hess mentions, “linked visions, aligned dreams, and a unified camaraderie to build something bigger.” Still, you’re hesitant. It has to feel right.
Thanks to the amazing and talented people you know, you were able to make your first film, The Purple Onion. Your EP, Andre Gaines, came across that film online, watched it, saw potential in you, and reached out. You’re fortunate to have him as your industry mentor, your champion. And while he’s busy on a lot of bigger projects, there’s a comfort in knowing that he wants to help you succeed. Still, you can’t help but feel these moments of uncertainty.
As a writer/director you want your collaborators to love your project the way you love it. This is how great cinema is made. But to assume that everyone will approach it that same way you do is unrealistic. This is a job. It’s an industry. People rely on it to pay their bills. You have to be cognizant of that. You were able to get volunteers and friends for low pay to help make your first film. But could you do that again? What if you’d have to because suddenly all the momentum on your project suddenly stops reason out of your control? How then will you test the limits of your love for filmmaking?
You recognize your idealism in pursuit of filmmaking. You question your enthusiasm. While the truth is you want to make movies more than anything, you want your feet on the ground, too, and not only your head in the clouds. Simple things like maintaining contact with friends and getting outside your comfort zone are tough when your instincts tell you to stay in and keep grinding. If you’re truly in the moment, fully aware of the present, pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, good things will happen. And to maintain this much needed balance sometimes you have to stop working, change your environment, change up your rhythm, and just get out and do something, anything.
“There’s this inherent narcissism of ‘serving the movie.’” “It’s like the movie is the patriarch.” Various forms of abusive behavior can be justified because there’s the sense that sacrifices must be made for the sake of the film.
Sacrifices must be made. But it’s not about sacrifice, while that is a requirement to make anything of real value. It’s about telling stories and serving a vision which you are compelled to express. If that vision has completely taken over your priorities, if you’ve left your full time job because of it, if you’re out on a limb and uncertain about your future, you are making a great sacrifice. And you should not expect that anyone else will also make that same sacrifice. It has to be you. You spearheaded this whole thing. You are the engine. It’s your vision.
When you started working 50 hours a week for a company you saw it as a means to an end. Someone wiser in your place would have seen it differently. Perhaps all those nights and weekends, instead of investing time and energy into your script and coursework and studying cinema, you could have strategized how to better serve the company. By now you could have been promoted, gotten a raise, received more job security. It’s all likely. But you also know yourself. Had you done things differently, had you fully dedicated yourself to the company, you would have felt like a fraud. In a similar situation someone else may in fact have found themselves, realizing they are better suited for that system, committed to company goals. But you know that that is not you. Because, already five years after being on the set of your first feature film, all you can think about is when you’re going to be on set again, collaborating with your actors, DP, production designer, adrenaline pumping, a million decisions to make — and you’ll do whatever it takes to get there again.
“Producing is super fucking lonely, but I do think that is the job, and I don’t find that unfair.”
Filmmaking, while a collaborative process, is a lonely endeavor. This is especially true for you, dear writer/director. You are alone with your ideas from the moment they form in your head until you’re on set realizing them. That can take years. After writing, if you’re lucky, development begins on one of those ideas. When talking about making your next film even, you’re concerned you might sound like a crazy person. What if, during this time of gestation while you were alone writing and developing, you went too far into the abstract and no one will understand your vision? Or maybe you’re concerned you’ve exposed too much, that you’re revealing too much about yourself? Or maybe you doubt that the film will ever sees the light of day. Fight through all that. The worst thing is to censor yourself, to let doubt slow you down. Putting yourself out there as a filmmaker is scary. But it’s also the best way to combat that constant loneliness. Through cinema you’re trying to communicate something greater than you.
A month after Sundance, without a day job, you’re starting to build your team. You have a script, you have a vision, you have an EP. Those things are going to drive the next few months, maybe next few years of your life. All the meetings and conversations, which will lead to your crew, cast, to securing the budget, everything — all that is going to be fueled, most of all, by your vision, by your passion. And still you wonder if you’ll be able to pull it off, if the film is going to even happen. When you find out your first actress option passed on your script it stings. It takes a few days to let go of the idea of her. Your second option is amazing, too. So you watch all of her movies and write a new intro letter for her. You start thinking she was the best option all along.
Or maybe you’ve been mistaken all this time? All those ideas, all that writing, leaving the day job recently, leaving that ad agency three years ago that brought you to L.A., leaving your first corporate job at CBS over a decade ago, what if all of those times you jumped ship were actually all in vain? You didn’t want to lose sight of your dreams. You held on to that idea, that vision, often in spite of what seemed best at the time. Theses doubts, these realizations; that’s loneliness. We can talk all about it, but only those who live this way really understand it. You’ve focused on a single goal this long. Words can’t fully describe it. It’s like a place. That’s where everything feels worthwhile. You give yourself to it completely. And that’s why you say fuck everything else, what have you got to lose. And you keep going.
“What they don’t tell you is that somebody’s been gambling at that casino for 18 years, and this is the first time they’ve won, and they’ve spent more money losing over the past 10 years of their life than they’ve just scored.” Just as gambling addictions feed off the promise of a win, filmmaking feeds off the promise of a hit (or at least a Sundance acceptance).”
Success is relative. You need perspective to understand your relationship to your work. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Are you setting goals? Are you doing absolutely everything to achieve those goals? Going through the motions is one thing. But actually putting in the work and the focus and the passion is a whole other game. And only you know if you’re really doing it, if you’re making the needed sacrifices, or if you’re just bullshitting yourself. You know if you’re in this all the way.
After spending five years on your first film you didn’t get that big festival premiere, you didn’t get the agent, or the theatrical distribution deal or anything like that. And while you were beating yourself up about how well your film didn’t do you failed to realize that you actually did it. You got a film made. You made a movie. Finally and honestly you acknowledged that feat. You let go of your expectations and accepted the reality. That’s when you wrote the article “Just Let Go Already! 12 Takeaways After Making the Microbudget Feature, The Purple Onion.” You were finally free and ready to walk away. Then a funny thing happened. Someone read your article, watched your movie and loved it. He distributed your first film, got excited when you told him about the next project you’re working on, and now he’s your EP packaging your next film.
You talk about this paradox of letting go in the follow up article “After Letting Go: How Walking Away from My First Film Led to Distribution and then Development on my Next.” All the work you’ve done has lead you to this present moment. It feels surreal. There’s so much to still do but you acknowledge that you’re in a good place. You’re making your second movie, this one a major motion picture with recognized actors and a real budget. You’re not sure if you’re dreaming. But if you are, you never want to wake up.
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Matt Szymanowski is a writer/director in development on his first major feature film Glorious Empire. His microbudget debut The Purple Onion is distributed by Cinemation and is available on most streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime.