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“How Does Anyone Make Plans in This World Anymore?”: Penny Lane on Pandemics and Production Offices

In April, as we began to put together the Summer, 2020 issue of Filmmaker, we asked directors, cinematographers, editors and other film workers to send us their thoughts on the quarantine and their own creative lives. The responses printed here were collected from April through mid-June — personal statements that speak variously to individual filmmaking practices, films halted mid-production, politics, art and life. Read all the responses here. — Editor

When coronavirus hit New York, I had just moved into a new office along with my producer Gabriel and associate producer Nick. This move represented a big step for us, almost exactly one year from when I resigned my position as a tenured member of the Colgate University faculty to pursue life as a full-time filmmaker (my resignation letter is dated February 10, 2019, and our move-in date was February 17, 2020). It was just a Greendesk office in DUMBO—nothing fancy, with grimy windows that don’t open and ugly furniture I would never have chosen. We assumed it would be our home base for about a year while we raised the money and got organized and settled enough to find a more permanent office to make our own. But I was inordinately proud of the office because it meant we had finally gotten two of our projects into production and the money was coming in to pay for company overhead expenses like an office—boy, it was a lot of hard work to get to this point. I set about making it feel like a worthy home: I filled it with plants, measured the floor for a rug and began secretly arranging to have the windows cleaned as a surprise for Gabriel and Nick.

It wasn’t even three weeks before Greendesk closed. Although all our stuff is there—including the plants, certainly all dead and which I cannot bear to think about—I haven’t been back. Now, I work at the kitchen table in my studio apartment. The two projects that were finally in production are obviously no longer in production, and to compensate for this cashflow problem and suddenly unallocated time we’ve started two new projects more suited to the times (they’re archival). I’m happy and relieved to be able to pivot like this, love the new projects and also am acutely aware I am actually doing really well—but I am so exhausted from this apparently endless startup/development phase. Now I have five projects, all in development or paused in early production. I have done my best to think of this weird time as a kind of artist residency in which I can just focus on making art and not be pulled into meetings/travel/etc. This has worked pretty well. I’ve gotten a lot done, and I’m proud and creatively stimulated. But the daily tax of uncertainty, dread, loneliness, fear and worry is getting to me. My optimism is fading. And since optimism is the fuel for a new business, I can’t allow that to happen. I just can’t.

Three months into coronavirus, we have learned a lot about our work habits and preferences. I see how having an office so far from home doesn’t align with how I actually make art. Art happens on its own unpredictable schedule and being able to get to work without taking a long subway ride would be really beneficial. Gabriel told me that he is surprised by how much he is enjoying this break from the feeling of an office grind, and wants to change how he thinks about his schedule. Technically, we could return to our office, and we feel very much like we want to, but none of us can imagine taking the subway to get there. We can’t keep paying for what has become an expensive storage locker with dirty windows and dead plants. So, we’ve finally faced the fact that we need to move out, put our stuff in storage and continue doing what we can from home, and this is breaking my heart. This makes me feel I have made no progress at all. This isn’t factually true, but it is the way I feel.

We would love to find a new office we can walk to—all three of us live in Crown Heights—which in the best of times would be appealing as a quality of life matter but now appears essential if we are going to have any office at all. But here comes the current dilemma: Although we have the financial resources to move into a new office, it seems borderline insane to sign a lease, even a short-term one, amidst all this uncertainty. What if things change again for the worse, and the city again orders us all to stay home? What if the financial backing for one or more projects drops out? How does anyone make plans in this world anymore? 

Penny Lane is a documentary filmmaker living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her most recent film, Hail Satan?, premiered at Sundance.

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