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Shooting With John

A Conversation About Film...With Guns by John Yost

Shooting with John: Lauren Wolkstein

The concept was genius, yet a bit insane. Get a bunch of indie film nerds together (who have never met before) to travel to upstate New York for the weekend and shoot some target practice – with assault rifles. None of us had ever shot a gun before, let alone an AR-15. We were terrified. Well, I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I was terrified.

However, there was a catch, and I didn’t know this until I arrived for the target practice: we had to be interviewed immediately after firing the rounds, with the assault rifles still in our hands. Talk about nerves.

I’m sitting here reluctantly trying to write this blog now because I honestly don’t know how I feel about the whole thing, especially the idea of being interviewed nonchalantly with a gun in my hand. Conflicted is the best word for it, I guess.

I received a quick training lesson from John Yost (our gracious host) and his friends on how to properly hold the gun before firing. Then, it was time. I stepped up to the plate (it was exactly like I remembered softball only with a gun instead of a bat), and then aimed at the target. Ten rounds of ammo fired straight in front of me. Once I shot one round, I couldn’t stop myself. I felt the adrenaline rush of having the control of the rifle in my hand. I shot round after round until there was no more ammo left, and I understood why these gun aficionados loved it so much.

It was a release. A breath of fresh air. A moment when thought completely escaped my mind. When I was firing the gun, nothing was on my mind but the target in front of me. This itself was a scary thought.

As soon as all my rounds were fired, my entire body started shaking.

People have asked me why I agreed to do this in the first place. I mainly did it because it was something that scared me, and I believe that everyone should face their fears, so that they are left with none.

Also, as a completely selfish reason, I wanted to make my father proud since he is a career military man. I accomplished both of these things that cool autumn weekend.

The importance of precision in firing a gun is paralleled to how precise you need to be when shooting a take for your film. The more precise you are, the less error there will be in the shot (for both filmmaking and target practice).

I realized that this amount of alertness and awareness that happens immediately after shooting a gun is a lot like filmmaking. After you shoot a take for a film, you have to process what you just did, and immediately make decisions based off of that. How you should adjust your actors, how you should adjust the blocking, if anything at all needs to change. You need to be thinking on your feet. I suppose hunters are thinking about how they should improve their next shot in the same way.

I was completely nervous and shaking when I was being asked questions about filmmaking. I didn’t have a chance to really process what I had just been through while shooting an assault rifle for the first time. The entire time I was being interviewed about filmmaking, I kept thinking, “What did I just do? Wait, I need to sit down and think about this.” But, I didn’t have time to think, the interview was happening.

Now, I find it completely ironic that I am holding a gun while I am talking about the importance of collaboration in filmmaking. Shooting a gun was a completely solitary experience, both emotionally and practically. Whereas, making a film should never feel like a solitary act. Ever.

As much as I agree with parts of the auteur theory, films are made by a collective group of people all trying to make one unifying vision come to life on the screen. As a director, you need to be open to many different voices on the set, giving you opinions that could make your film better. The beauty of filmmaking lies in the collaborative process of making movies.

It’s one of the many reasons that I make films. I love going through the process of making something with other people, all of whom I admire and love.
I can’t imagine doing it alone. And I can’t imagine those directors who are dictators on set, pointing the gun (so to speak) and telling people what to do.

I am not that kind of director.

I cherish other people’s opinions and love this process the most. I think the best films come from creating something beautiful through the work of a team effort. Filmmaking is like having another family to me. The support and community that comes with independent filmmaking is so strong and vibrant, I can’t imagine making films without the people I have worked with before and the people I will meet down the road.

My last film, Social Butterfly, was shot in the south of France. I went to France to stay with my producer for two months and write. The last film I made with my good friend and collaborator Chris Radcliff, The Strange Ones, was a year ago, and I got really antsy that I was not shooting a new film, so I quickly wrote a script to shoot during my stay in France. Why not?

I had never shot in France before and didn’t know the process of making films there. It was very different from shooting in America. The way people work and the time constraints were so vastly different that I had to learn to adapt to another culture’s way of making films.

We were told that when we break for lunch, we don’t talk about our work at all. We talk to each other and put all of our work down. This is something that I will take with me for my future films. We got to know our cast and crew much better this way.

This was very exciting to me. I met yet another family, my French family, of collaborators who worked on this film with me. We became a really tight-knit family in only a couple nights of shooting, and I know that we will still remain in touch with each other long after we finished making this film and it premiered at Sundance.

Again this was another case of me facing my fears and trying new things. I didn’t let the fact that I didn’t know French or the way to work in France deter my decision to make a film there that summer.

It was an amazing experience. I guess what I am trying to say is that as a filmmaker you should always be open to new experiences, new collaborators, and new challenges.

Face your fears in filmmaking and in life. And shoot for the target. You won’t be alone.


Lauren Wolkstein is an award-winning filmmaker who received her MFA from Columbia University. Her films have screened at Sundance, SXSW, Clermont-Ferrand, San Sebastian, and continue to play around the world. Social Butterfly is her latest film. It premiered at Sundance this year, and is screening at SXSW this week:

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