Letters from Blocked Filmmakers: David Rosfeld
Is it possible to be blocked even after you successfully complete your film?
If you asked me at the start of this series, “Letters from Blocked Filmmakers,” I would have answered no. You could be frustrated, disappointed or even angry, perhaps, but the realization of an artistic goal should have transmuted that feeling of blockage into something else…
Or, at least, that was the rationale behind this column. With “Letters from Blocked Filmmakers,” I wanted to create a space on this site for those whose films aren’t getting made but whose voices are still very much worth hearing. I also wanted to create a space for personal writing, for short memoirs and self analysis. So, I’ve been politely rejecting for this column pieces sent in by filmmakers who have made their films. Initially, I was surprised to have received these letters. One filmmaker sent me her letter and noted that its subject, her film, would be premiering in a festival the next week. I guess you have to get publicity any way you can these days, but I had to turn the filmmaker down.
However, after reading this letter from David Rosfeld — and remembering what Emerson had to say about “consistency” — I’m making an exception. Rosfeld makes clear that films don’t exist in a vacuum once created. For the independent filmmaker, they represent a strong desire to communicate, to connect. When, for whatever reason they don’t, that feeling of being blocked continues. Or so it did in Rosfeld’s “if a tree falls in a forest” scenario. Fortunately, Rosfeld’s tail of failure crests upward as well as contains a very thoughtful critique of the current independent film scene, including some fascinating ruminations on networking and self-identity.
And, this is probably the only “Letter from a Blocked Filmmaker” I’ll ever publish that contains the film’s trailer at the end.– Scott Macaulay
This is a great series, a chance to commiserate in a business that can be very insecure about weakness and expressions of failure. I thought it might be interesting to share my experiences not only in getting blocked while making a film, but also after.
Seven or eight years ago, I began trying to make Victor, the story of a boy who kills his younger brother then seeks to runaway from the consequences. It’s set in an eponymous old town high in the Rocky Mountains; a very real, rough and tumble place that has refused to become a bed-and-breakfast community and still makes its living mining gold. I was lucky enough to raise a little bit of money to develop a script, so I took four months off and went to live in the town, renting a cool loft with a claw foot tub above the vacant mercantile on main street.
With the script complete and some test footage shot, a couple of businessmen and arts patrons in my hometown of Oklahoma City expressed interest in funding the film to the tune of $300K. So I set a shooting date, put a crew together, began casting and then, the businessmen pulled out a month before shooting. We had to shut down. Actually a pretty normal occurrence in the film world, but I was devastated.
It’s hard to see now what I looked like to those investors, but in hindsight I can only imagine. I knew how to follow the creative path, but had no idea how to inspire confidence in a group of people who were handing me several hundred thousand dollars. My attitude was that if I work really hard, take on a huge amount of risk and present you with a script and vision for the project, then you should just give me the money. Wow! I can tell you that does not work.
Not long after that, I received a note from a European festival inviting a different script of mine to be included in their co-production market. I felt really honored. This would be my chance to meet producers from around the world, talk about film with like minds and get the ball rolling again, albeit on a different project. The scripts included in the market had been chosen by a festival jury. After I arrived, I found out that the juror who most passionately advocated for mine had not read the script at the time, but based on my synopsis and bio, liked that my project had strong gay content. Though bias was working in my favor, this really opened my eyes. I felt very uncomfortable knowing that this was the way the system was working (at least part of it). I also found socializing at all the networking parties centered around the market a little difficult. Everyone was constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting to see whom they should be talking to, looking to orbit around the person with the most power in the room.
I should add here that ever since childhood, I’ve felt most comfortable standing off to the side. I don’t like cozy associations that involve keeping other people out. As a gay boy growing up in a very conservative Midwestern town, I learned I was on the outside of the group early on. I grew to be comfortable there. Once I matriculated into gay culture I assumed the same role. I didn’t have much in common with the gay scene, so naturally wound up standing to the side, observing. Now it seemed that the same scenario was playing out in filmland. Off to the side is a great place to be when you are writing, filming or creating anything, but it can be tough to put deals together or advance a career from there. I think many of us share this same sense. I mention it neither as a strength or weakness, but that it is a consistent pattern in me, and so a place of comfort. Perhaps I need to do more to step outside that, be more in the center? Being outside makes for great observations but can also make you smug and self-righteous. Had that been one of my biggest problems?
Returning from the festival I felt like a failure, upset I hadn’t made better connections. I dusted myself off and began volunteering for IFP, working on their annual Independent Film Week and beginning preparations on a short film I wanted to make called Coal. Things were picking up. With the help of IFP’s fiscal sponsorship program, I was once again able to raise just enough money to make Coal in those pre-Kickstarter days, thanks to the incredible kindness of my friends and family.
We shot Coal near a small town called Frackville, in what’s known as the bootleg coal mining region of Pennsylvania, with a great NYC crew and talented performers. We edited it together and then sent it off and waited. And waited. Over the course of a year, it didn’t get into a single festival, both large and small. I’m not sure why. The film isn’t perfect of course, and there are many things that I would do differently, but it seemed as good as what I was seeing programmed.
That outside feeling I was so familiar with began turning very negative. Now I wanted to get in, wanted to share my work, but being on the outside seemed to prevent that. I had hoped a good short and doing the festival rounds would help raise my ability to attract a little interest; maybe bring me out of my shell. But even more discouraging, I felt blocked from finding an audience. I began to realize that part of what I do is based on a desire to connect meaningfully with others the way so many writers and directors had meaningfully connected with me over the years. It felt so isolating not to be making any connection through any of the work. Maybe I wasn’t so much the outsider I believed myself to be.
I needed some help. I’ve always felt it best to take screenwriting and filmmaking advice from people whose work you admire. So I made a list of three filmmakers I looked up to and decided ask them for some guidance. I sat down with one of them over dinner, a documentarian coming to the end of a successful festival run with a gripping, deserving film. She listened patiently as I explained my discomfort for the business and my frustration getting things out. She told me that having a healthy skepticism about the business was fine, just keep making stuff and just keep working. Why not do something lower budget, something local here in NYC?
I had never wanted to make a New York film. I’ve always been interested in focusing on out of the way places, places beyond my own experience that aren’t often on screen, places that show what a diverse and eccentric country we live in. But it made sense to make something here and now in NYC.
I wrote a script over the next month and immediately began fundraising. Things went pretty well actually. The film, called 3 People I’ve Never Heard Of, is about two friends that played in a band together while growing up in the Midwest. Jamie grew up to be a doctor with a young family living in Chicago and Adam, a gay bohemian in New York, living his dream but unattached to anything. Our film would follow them through a night together as Jamie visits Adam in Brooklyn.
The story of bringing a childhood friendship into adulthood seemed to resonate, and I was able to get commitments to cover our very low budget. We had decided to film the movie in a single unedited take, beginning in the back of a taxi, following through an apartment building, to the roof, then a dinner party, a big loft party with a live band performance, back to the roof, then ending back in Adam’s apartment. This created some pretty big technical hurdles, but I was interested in how this film would play out as a single performance, which re-enforced the idea that an old friendship can be comforting but at times claustrophobic. It also seemed counter to everything that was going on, as performances in music and film had become so heavily edited, along with our lives on Facebook. The plan was to rehearse the film for a month, then perform it on camera from front to back on six nights in September, choosing one night as the finished film.
Everything went pretty well until mid summer when there was a major drop in the financial markets. We were raising money from doctors, lawyers and dentists, people who had some disposable income but not so much they didn’t have to worry. A few of our commitments had to drop out, leaving us with less then half the budget covered. Money was borrowed against my mother’s house. We carried on.
Filming was much more stressful than anticipated but with a great cast and unbelievably talented crew, we pulled it off. Several nights had made a good film, but we finally chose one and began sending it around. A very well established festival rep saw the film and loved it, so he began submitting on our behalf. And so we waited. A year into the submission process, despite some kind words, no one had programmed it. A representative from IFP invited me to submit the project to be considered for one of their labs, but I couldn’t afford the entry fee. I was so broke, had borrowed money for the film, was paying out submission fees to festival after festival, making promo materials, all the while trying to stay afloat in New York. I was always asking for just another $60 here, another $90 there from friends and family. I had maxed everything out and I couldn’t do it anymore. I explained my situation, but they wouldn’t offer a waiver, so when the IFP rep called me to explain my options of payment and the financial constraints of his organization, I really let him have it. I knew how to pay, I just couldn’t!
I was at my worst, and my own worst enemy. I had become a brittle, anxious filmmaker, yelling at people on the phone, thinking I was fighting the good fight, but really just becoming more isolated. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, a very deep depression was setting in. It came close to ruining everything.
I continued to wait. Our festival rep was working for free based on his passion for the project and was able to help me keep submitting without entry fees. But still, nothing was happening. It’s been almost two years now. We’ve tried 25 festivals and haven’t been accepted anywhere, even with decent referrals and praise from programmers. Sometimes that happens, you just kind of fall through the cracks. And I don’t know exactly what to do. The film is by no means perfect, and it certainly isn’t for everyone, but I also know first hand that we’ve been on the final boards of several great fests, so we’re competing, but nobody is taking that chance. I feel like we are in the Olympics coming in fourth or fifth, which means we just might make it sometime to bronze, silver or gold where people see us, but maybe not. I think that’s just the risk you take doing anything creative. I am still not entirely okay with that, but I’m working on it.
The repeating nature of all this, the trying to put it out there and being constantly left on the outside has left me despondent at times. Last fall was the worst of it. Depression had set in and I was shutting down. When my mom came to visit for the holidays, it was apparent to me that I had to make a change. So I decided in January to pick up again, and just get on with it. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes, that’s all you have to do.
It’s easy to get caught up with how hard being a filmmaker is, but I know a couple of single moms who have more courage and compassion than I’ll ever muster. And I’m certainly not the only filmmaker in this position. It’s been inspiring to watch Patrick Wang as he took his film In the Family from 30 festival rejections to several top ten lists and a successful hybrid distribution model, all the while maintaining a sense of grace and artistic integrity.
We are lucky to be living in a time and place where filmmaking is even an option. And just at this moment, new avenues for connecting to audience, with or without a festival on board are coming around. So things are still looking up. Throughout all of this, I’ve never stopped believing in the audience for independent film. Maybe I’ve lost faith in some of the structures we have built to bring content to them, but more important has been looking at the patterns and structures in my own life that hold me back and my role in perpetuating them.
My biggest mistake though, through the blockage, was letting myself get away from the joy of creating, even when things didn’t work out as I wished. Over the years, I had let my musical side languish, so in January I began writing and recording songs again on my guitar, and for the first time in my life, started singing. I love it. It’s become a necessary part of my day. And, remember that script Victor? After I started in with the music again, I sat down and completely re-wrote it. My skills as a writer had grown stronger over the years. I was able to craft things in a way that I had always wanted to, but just couldn’t quite manage the first time. I felt more empathy with my characters, and was able to express it. Now I cringe at how close I came to making it before the film, or I, was ready. Sometimes, you can be thankful for blockage.
To learn more about 3 People I’ve Never Heard Of, visit its website.
If you would like to tell your story in this column, read the guidelines here and then email me your letter for consideration at firstname.lastname@example.org. — SM