Last summer was filled with new experiences and steep learning curves but I never once doubted we would make this film. I knew there would be challenges; I’ve participated in enough creative ventures to know that though the memories may be all roses, the journey itself passes through thorns. Nevertheless, during those quiet moments, just as I was falling asleep, I was filled with excitement and awe to be a part of this experience, but under the flutter there was a deep sense of calm. I truly believed that together we could do this.
So why write about that terrible F-word: failure? If you’ve seen Like the Water or simply read this blog, you know this is ultimately a success story. Why feel the burden to write about something depressing and unpopular? Why cast a shadow on the memory of such an artistically fulfilling summer? I’m writing this because I have to. I tried to ignore it. I tried writing something else. I tried giving up on the idea of contributing anything at all. The theme of failure, however, has been coming up over and over. I can’t seem to get away from it so I decided that it was best to deal with it directly: along with the tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride that were part of my personal journey of making this film, I also came face to face with Failure.
The night that Caitlin and I shot our confrontation scene (the “Charlie/Lola fight”) was one of my first experiences on camera, my background being mostly theatre. Our rehearsals had been incredibly dynamic so I was excited to see what this night would bring. Our crew worked away to set up for the shot and we began shooting around 2 AM. At this point we’d been filming for two weeks and I’d spent considerable time on set. I knew how supportive, patient and wonderful everyone was but for some horrible reason when the moment of “action” came, I freaked out! I was overcome with the fear of disappointing everyone, wasting people’s time, ruining the film, proving that I was a fraud and shouldn’t have been asked to be a part of this project to begin with. . . in short, all of my nightmarish thoughts and visions swept over me like a tidal wave. And because I’d been so confident in our project and in us as a group, I didn’t think about or prepare myself for what the moment of “solo” time would be like. I wasn’t at all prepared for the sense of responsibility and ultimately the fear, the paralyzing fear that I would feel.
I don’t like to fail. Many would rightly ask, “Who does?!” But I really don’t like it. There are people I know who are braver when it comes to facing possible failure. This sounds like a value judgment and I really want to avoid making one. I just mean to say that I’ve found that some can roll with disappointment and risk better than others. I’m adventurous and will take huge risks, but risking failure, especially in a public setting, that’s not for me. I hated piano recitals, for example. HATED THEM. My teacher(s) required recitals every few months. I didn’t want to play in public. I didn’t want to be judged. I enjoyed playing for myself. I enjoyed the challenge of learning a new piece, working through it technically and then practicing to the point where I could feel myself in and through the piece. But it wasn’t for public consumption. I’d get too nervous and I didn’t like the attention. I couldn’t lose myself in the music the way I did when I was alone. I tried practicing really hard to perfect my pieces but I still got nervous and my fingers wouldn’t cooperate. I decided that practicing more and working harder was not the answer. Somehow it never occurred to me to practice not worrying so much, not caring if I made a few mistakes (or ten!) in front of people. As soon as I turned thirteen I decided I was old enough to quit playing the piano, so I did! Aside from those piano recitals, I haven’t experienced all that much failure in my life. I’ve been lucky I suppose that most of my risks have paid off. And most projects that were failures were shared ventures, so somehow my pain was mitigated. That night, however, even though our film set was incredibly collaborative, I felt utterly alone and afraid and I couldn’t shake it: I felt I was doing a terrible acting job, I was closed off, I didn’t make spontaneous choices, I was so tense that I started losing my voice (after the 14th take or so . . . kill me now!). Pretty much the only horror that didn’t come about that night was the earth opening up and swallowing me whole. And believe me, I actually prayed for that.
I kept fighting, each time feeling more and more defeated but I continued to fight. The problem is that I was fighting myself and descending deeper and deeper into my own hell. What truly breaks my heart is that I was so deeply disappointed in myself and so caught off-guard that I lost all faith and confidence in myself. My many years of work and study, my investment in my art, in my friendships, and in myself, it all counted for nothing. I was simply a terrible actress, a horrible friend and a colossal waste of time and space. It’s terrifying for a rational person who loves to achieve and excel to realize that there’s a powerful place in my psyche where all merit and worth count for nothing. At that moment I was a stranger in a strange land with no currency. I had no worth and I knew it. Worse than that, I believed it.
After Caroline (finally) decided to move on to another scene I sat on the back porch of Caitlin’s house, utterly exhausted and defeated. The sun was rising and the view across the backyard towards the water in the distance was stunning. I was so relieved it was over! Soon my girls were around me. I was dumbstruck and blindsided and for the first time in ages I felt I had no good explanation for or even an instinct about what had happened. Finally my tears were flowing and I once again felt the support and strength of these wonderful friends around me. Caitlin looked at me as I apologized over and over and she said “Sal, don’t apologize. We got the scene! We got it. And believe me, I’ve been where you are right now and I know it feels horrible. I’ve been there. And I’m telling you all these things that you’re thinking right now, they’re not true.” I’m filled with such gratitude when I think about that moment. The terrible thing about feeling that kind of paralyzing fear, that internal scramble and panic as it became clear to me that I was in the act of failing in the most public, open, and humiliating way, is that I lost all sense of being part of a community. I lost all sense of being there with my friends, my colleagues, my fellow artists. It was just me, in a glass cage, writhing in horror at my own pathetic self and they were witnesses to it. That moment was reduced to a “them and me” in the most acutely threatening way. It’s horrible and embarrassing to admit because I love and admire these women. But that moment wasn’t about them. Or our crew. Or the fucking birds that started chirping, marking the hours that had been wasted by my shitty acting. It was about my worst fears coming true: failing publicly when there was so much at stake professionally, personally, and artistically, and feeling utterly alone.
Miraculously, on our tight timetable and budget, Caroline finessed a way for us to reshoot the scene a week later. The experience was much better that time, thank god! I came prepared: I had a $100 bill in my backpack and had warned my dad that if the same thing happened I’d just start running and get as far as my $100 would take me and then figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life!
As fate or the director would have it, the footage in the final film is from that first night’s shoot! I was mortified when Caroline told me this but she assured me that it worked much better in the context of the whole film. Live and learn. I don’t control it all (what?! really?!) and therefore can’t give the “perfect” performance. I’m happy to say that Caitlin was right . . . we got it! I give all due credit to Caroline, to our editor Mikaela, and of course to Caitlin for making the scene work—but I can also watch my work and feel good about much of it. Thankfully, because it’s such a collaborative art form, there was room for me to experience this failure and still have this project be one of the things I’m proudest of. The art of filmmaking. Truly amazing.
Without romanticizing my experience of failure I can honestly say that I’m grateful for it. Grateful to know that I survived it. Grateful to realize how many gifts failure can bring. I was reading a section of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time recently where he describes an experience of scheitern, most aptly translated as “shipwrecked” or “shattering.” He says that our success in real, genuine thinking, occurs only in and through the experience of shattering/shipwreck. Only through scheitern can we measure any progress. Failure is a time of facing fear. It’s a time of wrestling with the monster(s) head on, a time of experiencing a real-life nightmare. In that sense there’s something exhilarating about it. For a time (which to me felt excruciatingly long) I experienced the underbelly of so many drives, desires, and beliefs and got to deal with myself in an all-out crisis. While it was something I’ll always be grateful for, the shattering was very real and deeply felt, and like a pebble in a pond, the ripples extended out to other areas of my life. It broke my whole life open. The process of rebuilding, however, has made it possible for me to write part of this after a day of surfing in Bali . . . having traveled there after finally taking the risk to fall in love again.
One thing that I can say quite objectively is that part of the reason I experienced this shattering is because I was working with women who were much better at risking failure than I. Caitlin was writing her first movie and starring in it; Caroline, first-time co-writer and director; Emily B, acting and also producing for the first time; Susan, acting with us after having been our teacher; and Emily A-W, running the whole production and dealing with insurmountable tasks daily. All of these women were taking huge risks and it’s not that I wasn’t, but my risk felt communal, like we were all in it together. I discovered that for me, truly risking failure is about sticking my own neck out and facing the firing squad (or the chirping birds). What a gift, to have been pushed by circumstance and by these fierce spirits I’m lucky enough to call my friends, to get back on a track where failure is likely to be a more regular part of my life. It’s terrifying and exhilarating and the way I’ve always wanted to live. My life: an adventure! Thank you to everyone who has taught me about failure, by example or otherwise, and thank you to all of you who witnessed my failure that night (or the ripple-effect afterwards) and helped dust me off!
Failure is part of life, a part that I am starting to embrace as fiercely as possible. I’d like to become more expert at failing. What a terrifying thought!! But I’ve taken to heart the words of one of my favorite writers, Samuel Beckett: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.