2011 Feature Film shot in Camden, ME
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Category — Great advice

The F-Word

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.

August 13, 2012   1 Comment

Big Girl Panties

Last summer scared the shit out of me.

I believe in fear.  I believe that it can be an extremely creative energy.  I know that when I get asked to do something and it scares the hell out of me, I have to do it.  Why?  Because every time I have felt extreme fear and moved through it, I have had the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Last summer was one of those experiences.  As the time to go to Maine drew near, what kept running through my head was: who the hell do we think we are????  We were 6 friends who had a bold vision, but no practical experience of getting a film made.  We were sure to fail miserably!!!  Oh God what have we done????

This is what I told myself and the other actresses on set:  it’s time to put on the big girl panties.  It’s time to live a life of bold dreams, no regrets, full of life force and vitality.  We pushed ourselves to our edges, and demanded that of our tribe members.  I did many things I have never done before:  acted with my students (terror!), howled and keened and wept and stormed (horror!), swam naked in the lakes (nausea-inducing!), took a Zumba class (?????!!!)… the list goes on…

Here’s what I learned:  every day I was scared, and every day I went to sleep feeling more alive than I ever have.  This idea of the big girl panties is so useful to me-that when I feel the little bratty part of myself taking over, when I feel fear and I start a little temper tantrum inside, and I fight to keep myself safe and small, I think of Maine.  I think of how I witnessed the women in my tribe stepping up in a big way.  I believe in their bigness, and I believe I stepped up too.  I believe in my bigness.   I silence the brat by taking bold steps despite the fear.  I believe in my big girl panties.

May 29, 2012   No Comments

STAY HUNGRY

I can confidently say that the experience of making Like the Water changed my life. We set out, a group of women friends, to make a film that utterly bucks the trend. We didn’t really know that’s what we were doing, mind you. We thought we were making a movie about a young woman’s journey into herself that might speak to other women like us.  In the process of making the film, we also wanted to demonstrate – despite what every women-centered reality show will have you believe – that more than fighting, we collaborated with one another, supported each other, and were as a team much greater than the sum of our parts.

Finding funding for a bunch of first time filmmakers who are gearing their story towards an otherwise under-served (and therefore, mostly unproven) audience is an uphill battle, to say the least. We had many moments along the way where we nearly threw in the towel. We talked of pushing back production to the following year, of changing the parameters of the project and making a short, of scrapping it all together. And this was where it was crucial that we were a team: one person would dig in her heels and say, “No, we’re not giving up yet.” As individuals we sometimes fell prey to our fears, but as a group we were hungry for something larger than ourselves, something that would demand we all grow into the space it created.

And the experience of producing a micro-budget feature: the generosity of spirit, the personal risks, the hard work, the advice, the solace, the humor – the whole village it took to make it happen – gave me the confidence to strike out on my own and found Seed&Spark, a production company and digital platform I hope will help other filmmakers like us tell their stories their way and build their communities as they go. Building this new platform has me doing a lot of reading on everything from start-up funding to new financing models to personal narratives of filmmakers. Yesterday I read something in a Venture Capital advice column that put Steve Jobs’ famous words on what was perhaps my most valuable lesson from the women of Like the Water:

“Stay Hungry.”

Don’t give up. Don’t celebrate to early, either. Know that it will demand more than you think you have. It’s a long road and at every turn you benefit from putting one foot in front of the other because sometimes that’s all you can do.

I have many days where I don’t feel like doing anything, sitting alone in my office with the demand: “Make something happen!” But I’ll get an email from Caroline about a great offer of support from a film festival colleague or an update from Susan Main on a class she’s teaching in Italy or news from Caitlin that she’s booked another amazing acting job and I am reminded that we succeed because we are hungry to do more, to excel, to turn our ideas into realities.

And so I write the next iteration of the business plan. Or I call the person I’ve been shy to call. One foot in front of the other. Hungry.

 

May 22, 2012   No Comments

Trust Your Own Taste

Along the way we have not only found advisers and mentors whose expertise has been invaluable, but we’ve also often found their advice saves us from succumbing to the plague of self-doubt with which any young entrepreneur and probably every young artist is intimately familiar. There is always that voice that says “What makes you think you’re so special?” or “Why would anyone care what you have to say?”

Tom Heller has produced such films as Win Win, 127 Hours, Monogamy, Precious, and Mother and Child. You may notice a thread connecting these movies: they’re all good. I chased him down to see if he could tell me how to be like him, since his is a career I truly admire not just in its accomplishment but also in its integrity. He met me for coffee one bustling afternoon near Washington Square Park right around when NYU was getting back into session. I had a thousand questions from the broad to the granular, all of which he answered with patience (lucky for me) and expertise.

When I asked him what advice he would have for a young producer, he recounted the start of his own career in films as a talent agent for writers. He said he would often gamble on a new writer, lesser known, based on his own feeling about their capabilities. He said he would pick up some clients that colleagues told him he was crazy to pick up. He stuck to his guns. He told me, “You have to trust your own taste.”

This small stretch of monosyllables would make Shakespeare proud. First of all, it’s iambic. Secondly, it packs into a few words a life’s worth of struggle, and all of the seeds of the principle to guide it.

As we launch into our post-production phase and start to think about putting our little movie out into the world, these pangs of doubt can become more acute. However, Tom’s advice continues to be a beacon: we have a story to tell, and we have to trust in our own way of telling it .

 

September 2, 2011   No Comments

6 Days!

We open the production office in Camden, Maine in SIX DAYS.
After the addition of Erica Anderson to our production team, we are really raring to go.
I just want to share a little bit of the feeling going on here:

The support of our friends, family, and creative community has been nothing short of breathtaking. I have said it before and it’s worth saying again that Camden’s open-hearted generosity has made possible what we were told was not possible. There’s a joke that if it takes one woman nine months to make a baby it should take nine women one month. I am starting to believe this group of women might be able to do it.

Being on a low budget means everything is DIY, and it’s actually surprisingly pleasurable: poring over the details of your own life to piece together the lives of these characters. We are spending our days collecting props from home, organizing craft services (catering), finalizing contracts, and crossing t’s and dotting i’s of our clearances. (As a side note – I completely understand now why “clearing houses” were invented. It’s a time consuming job. That being said, even the incredibly nice woman at Big Buck Hunter, from whom we have to obtain a clearance to film at Cuzzy’s bar, has visited the website, and sent her excitement and well wishes along with the contract.)

For those of you who have read the wish list and donated – you cannot imagine how much each little bit of your support has mattered to us. The little purchases we make funded by the wish list – the makeup, the hard drives, the coffee maker – are encouraging benchmarks for us that what started as an idea has fully manifested in reality, in all its minute and complex splendor.

So clearly we’re pretty pumped. There are still, of course, hundreds of details to attend to which momentum, excitement, or stress might cause us to miss. So when it seems intimidating I remember something my father taught me: just do the next right thing right. One foot in front of the other, even if it is a full out sprint until we wrap.

We’re making a movie!!

June 21, 2011   No Comments

Leadership in low-budget filmmaking

Yesterday I met with Dan Cogan from Impact Partners, the sort of man and the sort of organization that bring so much generosity and spirit to filmmaking. Impact helps to finance “cinema that addresses pressing social issues.” I was afforded this lucky meeting by a family friend. Dan started out working on sets, then worked as a producer, and went on to co-found Impact, which has financed over 25 films in its first three years, and the awards list those films have garnered is long. He was generous with his advice, candid about the challenges we face in micro-budget filmmaking, and also deeply encouraging. I am writing today to share what struck me as a brilliant piece of advice that should be spread widely:

Low budget filmmaking of any kind means relying on favors, in-kind donations, and countless donated hours of work and expertise. On every low-budget set, people are working for a fraction of what they might normally get paid, for the experience, or simply for the love of the project. (Our goal is to make it some combination of all three.) Dan said that in a low-pay world, the leadership on these sets of the producer, director, and all of the above-the-line talent is what will mainly determine the successful execution of the film. (This is, of course, assuming you have done your homework!) On a low budget set, things go wrong like on any other set, except there’s no money to throw at the problem. In Dan’s view, the leadership’s ability to deal with these inevitable challenges with “glee” can be the make or break factor.

“Glee.” If we can separate this word in the English language for a moment from its television counterpart: what a perfectly onomatopoetic word for being gentle, smiling, and calm. It is visionary, in a way, to think of assembling a team and creating a work environment with glee. I was so grateful for this word and this reminder. This group of women embarked on this project for love of working together, and Dan reminded us not to lose sight of that for a single moment, to imbue it in how we organize and how we execute.

May 10, 2011   1 Comment