Friday, January 12, 2018

Creative Citizenship

A few months back, my sister Siân (who is a fiction writer) used the phrase "literary citizenship" in conversation. I asked her what it meant and she told me that essentially it was about supporting the industry that you hope will support you. She expanded, "Rather than thinking of writing as a solitary act and seeing the publishing industry as something that owes writers something, literary citizens look at how to help foster and promote their fellow writers."

I hadn't heard the phrase before, but it immediately resonated with me. All artists are part of a creative community, and one can be an upstanding citizen in our community... or not.

But what makes someone a good citizen?  Theodore Roosevelt said, "The first requisite of a good citizen in this Republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight." Fourth grade teacher Mariely Sanchez says a good citizen meets the following criteria:
  1. Volunteers to be active in his/her community
  2. Is honest and trustworthy
  3. Follows rules and laws
  4. Respects the rights and property of others
  5. Takes responsibility for his/her actions
In terms of the film industry, I think good citizenship takes work and self-awareness and humility, and sometimes the skin of a rhino. It means thinking of a whole that is larger than yourself, even as you're hyper-focused on your own work and success.

I'm sure this is far from an exhaustive list, but if I were a fourth grade teacher, I'd include the following on my "good creative citizenship" list:
  1. Support your fellow filmmaker. You're not going be the only person to succeed, and why would you want to be? You'd just be all alone at the top. Not to mention the fact that you don't really want to alienate people on the rise--they're the ones who might help you rise too. Be gracious. It's just good karma. 
  2. Mind your own house. Focus on your work and try not to compare it with the work of your peers. We all get jealous. As an ambitious person striving so hard for recognition, it's natural to feel some feelings when you see your dreams coming true for someone else. Acknowledge the moment for what it is, see if there are any lessons to take from the other person's journey, then get back to your own work. It's the only thing you have control over.
  3. Be grateful for the opportunities you get, don't get hung up on the ones you don't. Avoid bitterness. Bitterness only hurts the bitter. There are a lot of us creative people out there and the opportunities can be scarce. It's disappointing to be passed over, but the only productive response to rejection is to evaluate yourself and see where you could have improved, then do the hard work necessary to prepare yourself for the next chance you get.
  4. Be a direct dealer. If you have issues with someone, approach that person and address those issues as soon as you can. Resolve it without dragging others into your it or letting it fester and grow into something worse than it is. The difficulty of broaching that initial conversation is nothing compared to the challenge it could blossom into if left unaddressed.
  5. Seek feedback and provide it when asked. Honest criticism can be tough to hear, but as a creative person, holding your work up for scrutiny is the only thing that will allow it to really shine. Accept it gracefully, and try to give it as you'd receive it. If you're watching someone else's work, consider how you deliver your notes--just like directing, you want to talk about what's not working in a manner that gives the recipient of the note something useful and actionable to work with. A culture of thoughtful critique makes everyone's work better.
If Ms. Sanchez's fourth graders can do it, I feel like we should be able to do it too.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Owning Success

Someone told me once that women are far more likely than men to attribute professional success to luck. Once I heard it, I couldn't stop noticing it, not just in others but in myself as well. Is it societally baked-in, this reticence to own our accomplishments? Is it another case of women just trying to avoid appearing cocky, arrogant, assured, for fear of being disliked and, in turn, losing work?

Yes, luck is a factor in success. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time or the opportunity simply won't present itself. And certainly some individuals are luckier than others in terms of having the means to be in those situations in the first place. But there are other factors that go into capitalizing on that moment: ambition, focus, skill, social grace, work ethic. If you don't have those, all the opportunities in the world won't help you.

Henry Winkler (yes, The Fonz) has said there are two secrets to success in the film business: tenacity and gratitude. You need the tenacity to persevere through endless rejection, to overcome doubt and fear, and to put in the work required to keep moving towards that ever-distant goal post. And you need the gratitude to keep you grounded in the fact that none of this can be done alone. Relationships have to be built and maintained and collaborators must be thanked for the part they play in your success. We have to constantly grant ourselves permission to enjoy ourselves and remind ourselves to appreciate our situation.

I think we can acknowledge the role of fortunate circumstance (and continue to do more to increase access to opportunity for under-privileged and under-represented folx) without downplaying our own agency in, and our own tenacity and gratitude for, our achievements.

This tendency to brush off any acknowledgement of our successes is just one of the societally ingrained behaviors that women must be conscious of and work actively to overcome. Through countless portrayals of sainted mothers and self-sacrificing girlfriends, we've also been taught the merits of acquiescing and putting our needs second, neither of which serve us as leaders. Additionally, we often don't garner the immediate respect that comes with conforming to the general physical description of a "director" (white, male, usually wearing a ball cap,) so we have a higher bar to clear just walking onto a set. We are not given the presumption of competence.

I often use the expression "fake it 'til you make it" regarding my struggle to overcome my own natural shyness. First as an AD and then as a director, I had to push past it so the cast and crew would get what they needed and expected from me--someone who was assured, unequivocal, and just the right kind of  forceful on set. It's not impossible to learn or assume traits that don't come naturally to you, but when the exact opposite behavior has been expected of you for your entire life, it can be a bit of a reset.

This isn't to say that there aren't loads of culturally-entrenched "female" attributes that come in super handy as a filmmaker. First and foremost, empathy and an understanding of how to get what you need while allowing others to feel heard and valued. These "emotional" assets may actually be harder to fake than the "power" traits above. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are less often seen as an integral part of a director's job.

Ultimately, all of us must find a balance between what's expected of us and what tools we carry in our particular tool belt. But when it comes to the demeanor with which one carries & comports oneself, these are things you can master, or at the very least attempt to control. There's only one place in life where the cards you are dealt is purely based on luck, and that's the circumstance into which you're born. Everything else combines a little right-place-right-time and a lot of hard work and self-assurance.

These days, when I find myself tempted to use the word "luck" or "lucky" to explain how something came to be, I stop myself and consider my role the achievement, then own it without apology.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Pervert/Genius Problem (cross-post from The Talkhouse)

This article was originally published at The Talkhouse on 11/29/17:

The lack of respect for women — their autonomy, their intelligence, the value of their contributions — is inescapable in our culture. It exists even in the hearts of women, because the same society that shaped the Harvey Weinsteins of the world has shaped us too. Last year, Anne Hathaway admitted that she had not trusted female filmmakers as easily as the men she’d worked with, and that she was coming to terms with the idea that she too was harboring internalized misogyny. All of us are victims of the pervasiveness of this problem, and all of us have work to do to fix it.

To misunderstand the cultural moment that has brought us all of these scandals is to make it about individual men and what should happen to them. Of course personal consequences are necessary, but we can’t let that eclipse the reality that on a larger level this is a moment for deep societal introspection, a willingness to look at ourselves in reflection of these men and their work, and a commitment to change everything.

But part of this path forward is finding some kind of resolution to the glaring question: What about their art? Do we just bury films directed by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, Nate Parker, produced by Harvey Weinstein, or acted in by Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn or Dustin Hoffman? Stop listening to Michael Jackson, David Bowie and R. Kelly? Deny the cultural milestone that was The Cosby Show? What about the other artists who contributed to these pieces? Are they just more casualties of these men’s acts?

It’s a debate that re-emerges every time a new perpetrator is unmasked, which now seems to happen on the hour. There are arguments that the two things — one’s art and one’s personal life — should be held apart, and judged independently. And there are those who say, “Fuck these men and the horse they rode in on. They robbed us of entire bodies of work from the women they chased out of the business. Burn their legacies down.”

Alongside this rising tide of accusations of misconduct, there has been a growing swell of voices calling for increased diversity in this industry. Cultivating the number of underrepresented voices behind the camera broadens the scope of the stories we’re exposed to, and by extension broadens our minds. I believe this deeply, because as a filmmaker I know how much of myself is infused into my work. Choices are made — about what the characters do, their reasoning process, the way they dress and the way they treat each other — and the filmmaker’s worldview seeps into all those crevices. And that can be a very good thing.

But what if the filmmaker’s worldview is sexist? Racist? What if the filmmaker, in his personal life, rationalizes his own instinct to masturbate in front of an unwilling second party, or to rape them? What if he has an attraction to underage girls and a lifetime of practice internalizing the accompanying shame, or what if he has no shame at all? What if those justifications and those prejudices and those predilections have been part of their work all along? What then?

I don’t think we can simply hit the Delete button on the legacy of every artist who has preyed upon women. The sad reality is that if we did that, we might not have much film history that would survive. This industry has a deeply rooted problem, and it goes back to the very beginning. But also, if we just erase or suppress these people’s work, we’re failing to do the first thing one must do when one wants something to change: acknowledge its existence plainly and reckon with it.

While I don’t advocate ripping these men’s pages from the history books, that does not, however, mean I think we should continue to celebrate them as we did before their personal lives became part of the picture. The work of these individuals can and should be looked at anew, in the context of their deeds, and we should study, or at the very least note, the impact of their worldview on the art we hold so dear.

Woody Allen has been using his films to rationalize his attraction to younger women for decades. One only needs to watch, to give the most obvious examples, Manhattan or Whatever Works (or read the plot for his upcoming film!) to see that he has, over and over again, provided us the blueprint for how to excuse his behavior. And he’s just the most obvious.
Brett Ratner has spent his career reinforcing homophobia and sexism on a massive scale to global audiences. There is an entire generation of men and women that have been raised on the toxic masculinity that pervades Ratner’s films. They are the same people who chuckled around him when he lied about “banging” Olivia Munn, or looked the other way when he outed Ellen Page. He is a prime beneficiary of the bro culture he helped to build.

Louis CK has made an art form out of confronting his own uncomfortable desires, but in the process, he has also created fictional worlds where he is forgiven for these desires, or at least asked us to laugh at them. In season 4 of Louie, he pushes Pamela Adlon’s character into a wall, kissing her against her will, forcing her to stay in his apartment despite her very clear and forceful refusals. After these protestations, which include her saying, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid,” her character admits she has feelings for Louie and the two start dating. It’s a very generous reimagining of non-consensual advances that in retrospect might as well have had Louie looking into the camera saying, “See guys? I’m not so bad!”

Roman Polanski has always been the toughest for me. His film Repulsionwas a major, formative influence on my work. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown exhibit mainstream storytelling at its most effective, and most artful. But Polanski has also raped children. Looking at his work through this lens, his paternal condescension for his female characters feels more visible. In Carnage, a character played by Christoph Waltz gives us a clue to how Polanski feels about a thinking woman when he says, “The women we like are sensual, crazy, shot full of hormones. The ones who want to show off how perceptive they are, the gatekeepers of the world, they’re a huge turnoff.” Does this perspective on women make his filmmaking choices any less effective? Quite the contrary — the strength of his technique allows him to inject his worldview straight into our veins.

This is not about just these men in the headlines. This is systemic. This is everywhere. This is the protagonist of Revenge of the Nerds donning a Darth Vader costume in order to rape someone, and the film treating the moment as a triumph of the underdog; this is Ace outing the antagonist in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a transgender person and every male in viewing distance puking in disgust; this is a woman being repeatedly, brutally beaten in The Hateful Eight, and the filmmaker playing it for laughs. We watch, we learn, we perpetuate the cycle.

The world we all exist in now has been shaped by our media and media-makers. Looking at the art of these men with both eyes open, the beauty and the ugliness coexist. One can appreciate the strengths of a piece while acknowledging and challenging its flaws, and also factoring in the harm done — by both the art and the artist, and both the obvious harm and the more insidious. The deification we often bestow on these auteurs can make the process of holding them accountable difficult and painful, but they’re not gods, and we never should have treated them that way in the first place.

While I can’t advocate jettisoning people’s entire back catalogues, what happens to these artists going forward is another matter. Once the veil has been lifted on their transgressions, anyone who continues to provide new opportunities for them to do more of the same kind of work becomes complicit in disseminating the artist’s worldview. But does that mean they should stop creating? Marc Maron, on his podcast, recently described this time as a “fucking massive, turbulent learning moment for men.” In the same monologue, Maron struggles with reconciling his friendship with Louis CK with what he now knows. After acknowledging those who wonder whether he can retain that friendship, Maron arrives at this observation: “It’s probably the best time to be his friend, when he wants to make changes in his life.”

There’s compassion in that. A driving force of my work has always been the idea that behind every villain is a very sad story of a broken human being. Can these men be saved? Can they learn any lessons from this mass public shaming? Surely there’s value to the perspective of a reformed man, who might better reach others who are broken in the same way, and who might actually make work that engenders change. Is it naïve to hope that these men could grow from this, and maybe even consider their future work an avenue for repentance?

Who knows? A big part of me just wants to tell them to go suck it and let the ladies take the wheel for a while. They’ve had their chance, and allowing them to be ejected carves out much needed room for new voices, voices that deserve to be heard, and who have been kept out (or chased out) of rooms for too long.

This shit is complicated. But I guess where I am landing is: Movies and television are a huge part of our education as to how the world works and who we want to be. (If that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have spent so much of college trying to channel Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites.) The worlds created inside our movies and television have an effect on the world outside of them. At the same time, a film is not separate from its maker, it is a reflection of its maker. And that context matters too. Let’s hold our storytellers accountable, both for the work they’ve already created and the work they’ve yet to create. And as filmmakers, let’s harness the medium’s power to do better.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Trajectory - A Repost of a 2014 Interview with Hammer to Nail

A Conversation With Megan Griffiths (LUCKY THEM) by Michael Tully
June 4, 2014

Megan Griffiths has been deeply embedded in motion picture production for over a decade, yet after directing her first low-budget feature upon graduating from college (First Aid For Choking, 2003), she fell into a groove working as a producer and First Assistant Director on features in and around her adopted hometown of Seattle (Zoo, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, The Catechism Cataclysm, Your Sister’s Sister). 

After struggling for years to get her second feature off the ground, with the help of some very devoted producers, she finally made it happen. The Off Hours world premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive a Spirit Award nomination (for Ben Kasulke’s cinematography). Since then, Griffiths has managed to return to the director’s chair while exploring new genres and terrains. For anyone who wants to be a director yet knows how hard it is to sustain a career without becoming pigeonholed, Megan Griffiths’ trajectory is something to admire and aspire to. 

In the days leading up to the release of her latest film, the star-studded naturalistic comedy Lucky Them, I hopped on the phone with Griffiths to discuss her path of the recent few years.  

Hammer to Nail: I’d love to break down how you got to where you are right now. Would you say that The Off Hours getting into Sundance was the real starting point for you as a director versus being a producer or an AD?  

Megan Griffiths: Definitely The Off Hours. I made a feature before that but it was like eight years before that, and then I spent all that time basically both trying to get Off Hours made and then also working on a bunch of other stuff. I was pretty firmly in the assistant director chair until Off Hours and that’s mostly gotten me out of that chair. After shooting Off Hours I did AD Your Sister’s Sister and The Catechism Cataclysm, but I was also a producer on both of those things.  

H2N: There are obviously many talented folks in our world who AD and set dress and PA and grip and whatever else, but deep down they have their own movie they want to direct. What finally got you over the hump to actually make The Off Hours after so many years of trying?   

MG: It was actually the producers of The Off Hours—Lacey Leavitt, Mischa Jakupcak, Joy Saez—they were all on it for like five years. We had just finished working on this other person’s movie, and we thought we were going to a funder’s meeting type of thing, we got invited to this thing where they were like, “Come talk to people and they might be investors, they might help you make The Off Hours,” so we went out and talked to them and realized that they weren’t investors, they were really just people who were trying to get their own projects made, which wasn’t gonna amount to us getting funding for the movie. So we went out to dinner afterwards and basically just started saying, “Why don’t we just do it for whatever we can pull together?” We had this one person who had invested in the film way earlier, like 2007, and had taken her money back when the economy fell apart, and she said at the time, “If you ever get the movie going, I’ll invest again,” and so we went back to her and she gave us $10,000. We said, “Okay, we’ll make it for $10,000 and if we can’t get any more money we’ll figure out a way to make it for $10,000.” And then we set a start date, which was my birthday, and then just drove towards it like a bunch of crazy people. It was actually Mischa who said, “Let’s just do it,” and then we just said, “Fuck it, yeah, let’s do it.”  

I should also add to that part of the reason we did it too is that so many crew members kept telling me they would work on it for free, who I’d worked with as an AD. I had all these relationships with crew, and people were so encouraging that that was a big part of it. Working as a crew member myself, I had a lot of goodwill in my corner.  

H2N: Regarding Eden, I’m pretty sure that project happened because of The Off Hours, which is pretty cool because it’s not like there’s an obvious link between those two movies in any way at all, or am I totally off base here?   

MG: Okay, so The Off Hours was at Sundance, and I got the script for Eden when I was at the Salt Lake City airport coming back from Sundance. So it was really immediate. It was this guy Colin Plank who worked on The Off Hours who had, unbeknownst to me, the whole time he’d worked on my film, had been sort of scouting me, I guess. He had some money for the film and ended up raising more. I wrote a new draft of it. I came on as a writer first. I was like, “Why don’t I write a version of the film I would be really excited about making and if you wanna do that one then we’ll go off and make that movie.” I was also trying to scale it back because he didn’t have enough money to do what the original script was aiming for, so I sent him my draft and he was really on board with all the changes and excited about it, so then I came on as a director.  

H2N: What was his role on The Off Hours?  

MG: He helped us with locations. He came into the office and was basically offering to invest in exchange for a producer credit, but we weren’t open to the idea of anyone else getting a producer credit because our three producers had been on the film for so long. So we said no thank you to that but he said, “Well how can I help? I’ll just volunteer.” Our location manager was part-time, so he stepped up and filled out the other part of that job, which was much needed, so it was great that he did it.  

H2N: Talk more about the transition from agreeing to do a rewrite and agreeing to direct it. Were they begging you or had you fallen in love with the material to the point where you pushed hard for it yourself?  

MG: Well, he asked me to direct. I was the person who proposed being a screenwriter first because I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. I’d seen a lot of people—I know you know a lot of people in this category too—who have gone into a project where they were not on page with the producers and they’re trying to make different movies and it just always results in a horrible situation. 

H2N: I’ve never heard of that happening to any of our friends, I don’t know what you’re talking about. [both laugh]  

MG: I was trying with all my might to avoid that situation. I’d rather not do the film than do the version I don’t like. But [Eden] ended up working out pretty well. I would say more people should do it but my agents keep telling me no one should do that because there’s this potential for you to rewrite a script that ends up being given to someone else.  

H2N: It’s interesting you said the “a” word because I want to ask about your agent’s role in this trajectory. I had actually thought Eden had sprung from that world but it clearly didn’t.   

MG: I didn’t get an agent out of Off Hours. I had a couple meetings but everyone kept telling me that nobody watches drama. [both laugh] So I had a problem getting an agent! I actually went to LA right before SXSW when Eden premiered, and tried to take meetings with managers and agents but couldn’t get a meeting to save my life. And then I went back right after SXSW, having just received the Audience Award, and it was a different world. I took all sorts of meetings and that’s when I got my reps.  

H2N: Well, yeah, but Eden’s not a comedy!  

MG: It’s not. It’s not a straight drama, though, either. I think people were excited about the fact that there were some thriller type elements in it. For whatever reason—I do think the Audience Award helped quite a bit—but just in general having something not quite so small like The Off Hours.   

H2N: You can talk as freely as you’d like about this stuff, but Eden took a long while to come out. I know that a long turnaround is commonplace but I guess I’m mostly wondering how long after SXSW did you know that a deal was in place and you were going to be getting a release?  

MG: I don’t think the deal was signed on that movie until maybe five months after SXSW. It was a tough sell. It’s a weird movie that way because people who watch it seem to respond well to it. It was well received critically and we actually got a few audience awards, which kept surprising me because it’s such a dark film. It seemed to me that people were happy they saw it after they’d watched it, but getting people to the theater to see a movie about human trafficking is a tough proposition. I think it was really scary to distributors because no movie about this subject has really ever done well except Taken, and we didn’t exactly have the same approach as Taken! [both laugh] I just feel like people were really freaked out by the idea, but once they did get it, I think they found it challenging and maybe didn’t work outside the box enough to actually get people out to see it. I think it’s just the nature of the film. I’m proud of it and I’m happy it did as much as it did, but I feel like there was an opportunity there for us to do more and we’re all kinda bummed out by the fact that it didn’t.  

H2N: I hear ya. It’s hard in a thumbnail description to clarify that a movie like Eden does have some uplift in it. Most people are probably like, “Ehhh, I’d rather not go down that rabbit hole today, thank you very much.”  

MG: I’m as guilty as anyone of keeping things sitting on my Netflix queue that are not “easy” views, and I’m sure Eden is that movie for a ton of people. [both laugh] A few people have told me that. “It took a while for me to watch it but I finally did and I’m so happy I did.” It’s there, people can discover it!  

H2N: Okay, so you’re finished with Eden and say to yourself, “Okay, I need a new project. I’m not an AD anymore, I’m a director.” How do you get from Eden to the next one?   

MG: That’s when I got my agent, so I did the rounds and had general meetings in LA, but none of those led anywhere initially. At that point, I definitely didn’t feel like I was looking for AD jobs. I was trying to stay in the director’s chair. I guess it was right after SXSW, after I got my agent, I was hanging out at SIFF with Colin Trevorrow [director of Safety Not Guaranteed]. He and I were just chatting about upcoming projects and he said, “Oh, you know what, I’ve been talking to this producer who is doing this Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward film called Lucky Them and I feel like you’d be really good for it. She was asking for directors, would you mind if I sent you the script?” So that one came through a friend and not my agent. I just read the script and bonded with the producer Emily [Wachtel]. She’d been working on the movie at that point for like a decade at that point, and I told her that I had worked on a film for a really long time myself—The Off Hours—and I couldn’t imagine giving it over at that point, so I was grateful that she would even consider trusting me with this decade’s worth of her life. And I think she liked hearing that and that’s what sealed the deal on that film. We worked together to move it from New York to Seattle, because it wasn’t originally Seattle.  

H2N: That’s a massive change, though, so right away it seems like for her to even consider that is showing a huge act of trust on her part. Was that you pitching it because of your comfort zone and your tight crew, or was it creative as well because obviously the Pacific Northwest music scene is so historically significant?  

MG: Basically that was the conversation. On the very first phone call, she told me they had already started talking about not shooting it in New York because they just didn’t have the kind of budget to make it there. They considered Nashville and Seattle and were looking at other cities and I said, “Come out to Seattle, I’ll introduce you to my team, you can see some of the places where I’d want to shoot.” And she and couple of the other producers—Amy Hobby and Adam Gibbs—came to Seattle and I showed them around and introduced them to people like Lacey. Just because it’s such a great group of people, and they had seen Safety Not Guaranteed and The Off Hours and Eden and Lynn’s [Shelton] movies, and were aware of what the Seattle crews were capable of, so it actually wasn’t very difficult to convince them. 

 H2N: Factoring all that into the equation, it’s still a big decision, especially when you’ve been working on something that long, so I think it’s a testament to them that they were able to swallow their NYC dreams and embrace this opportunity.  

MG: I give the producers a lot of credit—Emily in particular—for a few things. One of which is the openness to changing it. Because that was a big change in the script, but Emily and I worked together to revise it. She was never too precious about the material and instead wanted to find the best version of it. The other thing I give them a lot of credit for is trusting me to make something that’s comedic after watching The Off Hours and Eden! [both laugh] Because they’re not exactly “comic samples.”  

H2N: Those movies are romps!  

MG: I think Lucky Them is closer to who I am as a person, it’s just more my personality. But they didn’t have any proof of that except for Colin Trevorrow saying, “Trust me, I think she can pull it off.” And they went with it. I also got surrounded by a lot of people who’d done comedy before so that didn’t hurt.  

H2N: Speaking of Lucky Them, which is why we’re “really” here right now. Did you have time to rehearse? You’re working with such seasoned pros that I wonder if you merely had some conversations to get on the same page before shooting? How did the process go for this film in particular with regard to directing actors and capturing a tone, because it isn’t an outright Comedy; it’s naturalistic and lived-in at the same time?   
MG: It was pretty conversational. We ran some scenes in prep and we did a table read, but for the most part Toni [Collette] and I and Emily would sit around a table and talk about Ellie’s character, and then when Tom came it was talking about who they are and what they wear and all that stuff you do with actors. I’ve never really had the luxury of rehearsal time with actors with any film that I’ve done, and I’ve come to enjoy the process without it. You just have a lot of conversations on the phone or when they get to town about who the people are. You’re not running scenes or anything but when you get to set and do the blocking rehearsal and questions come up, you can address them there. I don’t think we had anything that would be considered traditional rehearsal time. Oliver Platt and I and Emily went through every scene of his line-by-line before we started shooting, because he’s very meticulous that way. We also only had two days with him so we wanted to make sure we capitalized on that.  

H2N: Without jinxing things, you’ve gone from drama to comedy and now it’s lining up that you’re heading in a different direction.  

MG: I like the idea of not being pigeonholed. There’s definitely a through-line of “character based drama” in all of the movies—Off Hours is pretty straight drama and then Eden is drama-thriller and Lucky Them is drama-comedy—and the one that I think will be next is a psychological thriller, and that one I’m sure will have some drama in there too, why not? [H2N laughs] I like the idea of trying to expand and work different muscles and try different genres and not stick to one category for too long.  

H2N: Are you receiving any sort of blowback? Historically, in the studio-agent system, and in my admittedly limited experience, it seems that it’s looked at as weird to want to hop around, when the reality is that as a creative person if you’ve just done something it’s so much more intriguing and exciting to swim over to another island. Are you simply surrounding yourself with people who support the idea of not sticking to one genre?  

MG: I think there definitely is a double-edged sword there, because I look at other filmmakers who work in one genre and get really good at it, and they’ve developed a following based on that. Someone like Rian Johnson. He’s developed a following of people who like what he does, and it’s not like his movies are all the same but they’re in the same ballpark. So that’s the downside of moving around: it’s hard to develop a group of people who are interested in you as a director because it’s not the same audience for every movie. The nice thing about having a few different sample pieces is because I’m interested in various things, I now have different samples to send out for different projects. Steven Soderbergh is a great example of someone who has been able to hop genres but he’s definitely an exception to the rule.  

H2N: Usually when I do these conversations it devolves into sorrow and hopelessness about there are too many options out there for viewers and it’s impossible to find audiences for our comparatively small movies. Can you give me a positive, optimistic take on the impending release?  

MG: Alright. I feel good about this movie’s chances… if people are aware of it. It’s an easy one to go see, because it’s pretty light and fun and it’s about music and it’s got people in it that are enjoyable to watch like Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church and Johnny Depp. Right now, I feel like the tide is going in a good direction and I’m hoping that a lot of people come out to see it—especially in New York, because those opening weekend numbers are so critical, as you know, and basically the entirety of your theatrical future depends on that weekend. I’m doing everything I can to push that opening weekend in New York, and then following weekend in LA, to show that this movie can be popular and that people will want to go see it. 

H2N: Okay, that’s optimistic enough for me. You didn’t make me cry, at least.  

MG: It’s cautiously optimistic!  

— Michael Tully

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Upside of Rejection

'Tis the season of rejection. Independent filmmakers spent the fall pushing through the post process to get their projects ready for Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, Rotterdam, Tribeca, and on and on. And as those festivals come and go, they leave in their wake many, many broken dreams for those who didn't make the cut.

I have been on the downside of this equation and yes, it sucks. Films are personal. If you did your job right there's a little of your soul in them. When your film is rejected, it's basically impossible to be objective about it. You want the very best life for this thing you've brought into the universe. And despite the advances in DIY distribution you really just can't beat the power of a good festival premiere, and the associated publicity, to register on your audience's radar.

I have had films premiere at Sundance, Toronto, SXSW and Tribeca. I have also been rejected by those same festivals (and others) many, many times over. Did those rejections sting? Definitely. Some of them hit me really hard. But now that a few years have passed and I can view the situation from a slightly more removed vantage point, I find I am actually grateful. No, seriously, I am.

I'm grateful for the humility those rejections instilled, the pragmatism they inspired, the way they stripped away any sense of entitlement I might have felt for success. Because I'm not entitled to it. No one is.

I'm not usually one for sports references, but accepting defeat and then heading back on the field is the only way anyone has ever won a championship. And let me tell you, getting seven consecutive rejection letters from Sundance has a way of making you really appreciate it when suddenly the phone rings on the eighth. My touchdown dance was a sight to see.

But with all due respect and gratitude to the festivals that eventually did accept my films, I also know this: Experts are wrong all the time. People who program film festivals are generally smart, savvy people with highly attuned taste, but they'd be the first to tell you that they make mistakes. They allow great films to slip through their fingers. They have bad days where they watch films with less patience or get bullied by the marketplace to give precious slots to less deserving films that might have more draw. They are gatekeepers and they are needed in this world, but they aren't perfect.

Ultimately, as filmmakers we will face rejection. Honestly, the rejection we face at the festival level is great training for the rejection we will continue to face consistently throughout our careers. It's a tough and competitive business and you've got to keep your heart, your wits, and your humility intact.

And at the end of the day if you have made a film that speaks to something authentic, that connects with even one other person, it can get rejected from every festival in the world and you've still accomplished something pretty magical.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dear Los Angeles,

Los Angeles, my feelings for you are complicated. On the one hand, you have all that sweet mid-century architecture, a wide selection of vegetarian food, picnic weather in October, and several of the best people I know (and, okay, a couple of the worst, but this is the plus column).

You also happen to house the hub of my chosen industry. There is no other place where so much of the population can relate to the simultaneous contentment and nauseating uncertainty of following your creative passion. And there is certainly no other place where one has such unparalleled proximity to potential collaborators, professional idols and unabashed dreamers.

The thing about you, Los Angeles, is that mingled with that ever-present yellow haze, you also have this intoxicating air of possibility. The word "no" is rarely spoken. "Maybe" is emblazoned on the city crest. Maybe your pilot will be produced, maybe that marquee actor will sign on for your film, maybe everything will click. But when you try to grasp on to something, to pin it down, you realize that air of possibility is often just that: air. Swirling around you, making you feel cool, when really your body temperature hasn't changed at all.

Perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps living in a state of maybe is useful. Perhaps it fuels creation, makes a person dig deeper and work harder to find that extra something that will transform the maybe into that ever-elusive yes. Perhaps that air of possibility puts wind in the sails of our figurative boats.

But what if that pleasant breeze and constant gentle movement is making people forget that their boats also have oars? That they can also move ahead on the strength of their own arms and backs? What if everyone is just floating indistinctly, waiting for the breeze to eventually take them in the direction they want to go, their own power over their fate becoming an afterthought, a last resort?

Los Angeles, I wonder if you ever consider the inherent peril in a system that has the majority of people awaiting permission to move forward. The unbalanced power structure that impacts every level of interpersonal interaction, infusing so many encounters with an awkward transactional dynamic in which the less powerful individual has something to gain from the more powerful. The negative effects that being on the needy end of that dynamic can have on a person's psyche and, by extension, their creative output. The way it drives creators to generate rehashed versions of past successes rather than nurturing the stories that authentically reside within, that have a chance of saying something true and organically felt.

And as rough as this dynamic can make things for those on the downside of the equation, it's no October picnic for the powerful either. Those who dole out "maybe's" each day, more often than not just avoiding the confrontational "no" that might come back to haunt them even though they have no plan to ever make that "maybe" a "yes."

And it extends outside their offices--the casual hang, the trip to the barista, the family reunion--the hopeful are everywhere in LA. It's easy to see why a person in that position might begin to avoid those in a lower power tier altogether, to seek out only those in their same bracket, to dodge those uncomfortable bullets of expectation. And what then? The decision makers are now confined to a tiny, unnatural universe of like-minded privilege and rarified air. They no longer walk amongst the people, and therefore they no longer know anything about the experience of the people, and therefore they no longer tell stories that reflect the experience of the people, and the product becomes a glossed over, unrecognizable version of reality that gets branded as "Hollywood."

So, Los Angeles, you see why I resist you even as you pull me in. I worry that my choices are either to be one of the hopeful, waiting breathlessly to be granted entry, or one of the gatekeepers, retreating ever-backwards from the human experience that is actually the city's main export. And I don't like those choices, because productivity and authenticity matter. But I also know there are surely more than just these two options. Because I know Los Angelenos who are creating great, original work, who are grounded human beings, and who remember their own oars. People who may be battling a flawed system but who also seem to be coming out ahead. Knowing that those people exist doesn't make me any less conflicted about you, Los Angeles, but it does manage to make me slightly more optimistic.

Monday, September 22, 2014

In Defense of Unmarketable Films

When I put on my producer hat, it is often for projects that could be categorized as risky. Or unconventional. Or, if one is being less polite, unmarketable. And, being a person who tries to make a habit of looking at the world through multiple perspectives, I can understand that categorization and how it makes potential investors, production companies, even actors, a bit nervous to get involved. Even if they personally like it, they worry that they will be in the minority; that their money/time/reputation is on the line for something that might just not play to the masses.

I'm really glad I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse. I'm really glad I saw SafeMe and You and Everyone We Know. Schizopolis. American Astronaut. Pi. George Washington. Pink Flamingos. Memento. I'm glad these films exist. But if you were to look at these films on paper--their market potential, the established success of similar movies--would any of them have been considered a safe financial bet? Doubtful. Does that factor in to whether they should have been made? I don't believe it does.

These films and many more like them, while perhaps not for everyone, made an impact on the world of cinema. They challenged audiences and influenced a generation of filmmakers to try weird shit. Challenging norms is important. Sometimes this translates into mainstream success, when filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky and Stephen Soderbergh are given their shots at bigger projects and the freedom to incorporate their sensibilities and they end up shifting the way movies are made in Hollywood.

But some people don't make a weird indie films in an effort to gain entry into the larger industry. Some filmmakers can't be (or don't want to be) contained in that universe because their vision is not designed to be mass produced or marketed. John Waters, Todd Solondz, Miranda July, Cory McAbee. Their filmmaking is driven by something less definable--to push at the boundaries of things, to explore the crevices, to scratch an obscure itch, to poke, prod, provoke. They have something to add to the conversation that is truly different--something people may not even realize is missing from the current landscape until this new and unique thing comes along.

New and unique don't work in the marketing paradigm of our current system. Today's marketing is all about reaching out to a known, definable audience and building from there. A book sold well--let's adapt it. A movie did great business--time for a sequel. There's a beautiful foreign film that Americans will never watch because they hate subtitles--take the reading part out and remake it in English! Find something that people already like and then feed it to them again in a new form. It may be solid business sense, but how many times can you regurgitate something before it's completely inedible?

We are living in a particularly risk-averse time. People are downloading movies for free, no one is going to theaters, and distributors are making way, way, WAY less money than they used to. What that means is that they are spending less money on fewer acquisitions. What that means is that the people who finance films in the first place are seeing less return and getting more cautious about what they invest in. Which translates to those financiers trying to determine which films are the safest, what attachments will bring what amount of sales in foreign markets, what movie this movie is like and how can we tap into that audience that already liked that other thing and get them to come back for more. The people who invest in art for art's sake are pretty busy trying to keep theater, opera and ballet afloat. What time do they have for the less noble world of for-profit cinema?

You can say that these films are small and niche and should be budgeted accordingly, but what about that ambitious new idea that simply can't be pulled off for a micro-budget? Should it just not get made?

I don't know the answer to these questions. All the arguments for familiarity, consensus, and repetition of patterns follow a financial logic that I can't really argue with as a person with no capital on the line. But there's this nagging question that escapes that line of reasoning: If no one supports the visionaries, what will become of the visions?