Archive for October, 2014

Lose the Battle, Win the War: What that Really Means When it Comes to Directing

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

ShawnTalksWithNicholleTom-sm

Some of you have heard me talk about an amazing experience I was blessed to be a part of early my career.  I was a field producer for a BBC documentary on success and failure in Hollywood.  As part of an interview team of four people I participated in over 70 interviews with some of the most successful people in Hollywood.  From Kathleen Kennedy to Doug Wick after he’d won the Oscar for Gladiator to Akiva Goldsman who’d just won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind to Pierce Brosnan at his house.  It was like the best grad program in movie-making ever created.

We interviewed many, many producers and, as you’d guess, they all had lots to say about directors.  I heard more than one producer talk about directors who approach filmmaking like it’s an “act of war.”  As a young director who’d spent most of my career in the theatre at that point, I found this analogy really intriguing.  It’s not like the theatre was always touchy/feely, but I would never have called directing theatre an act of war. 

So, it was ironic to find myself using war metaphors when it came to directing Saturn Returns.  The emotional, physical and ment al challenges of directing a low budget feature in a small town 350 miles away from Los Angeles are immense.  The analogy of being a general in war in which there were many battles felt spot on.

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So what do I have to say about this “war?”  Lots, it turns out.  One of the things that might be most surprising is that as a director, I found that I generally lost most of the battles.  It turns out that losing battles was par for the course.  I don’t mean that I didn’t make decisions and see my choices and vision reflected in countless aspects of the film.  On the contrary.  My choices are everywhere, my fingerprints on 99.99% of what you’ll see on screen.

What I mean is that I had to get okay with losing battles in order to win the war.  I had to let go of my ego over and over again.  My experience of directing was the opposite of what the popular myth holds about directors and directing—that we are all egomaniacs and dictators.  Sure it takes a high level of confidence (and probably ego) to lead a group of 30+ people through a grueling process, making decisions every second of every day for 13 to sometimes 18 hours a day.  No doubt.

But for me, anyway, that process wasn’t about asserting my ego.  It was about the vision I was holding in my mind and the decisions that lined up with that vision.

So, here’s what I do mean by letting go of my ego.  When there actually was a battle (and there were several) I found that if I fought it to win it, then I generally lost.  By that I mean that I won the battle but stood to lose the war.  And by lose the war I mean risk not making my day and not completing the film.  Completing the best film I can make that is as close to the vision in my head is winning the war, in my book.

I’ll give you an example.  There was a crew member who was visibly unsupportive, at times rude and even verbally abusive.  I know, surprising right?  Actually not so much.  Film shoots bring out the best and worst in people.

On our last day of shooting the verbal abuse started again.  I’d taken this person outside a few times to talk over the course of the shoot and we’d reached a détente of sorts.  But on this last day the comments began again.  We were almost done shooting with one last shot that was important to get when the light was just right.  I remember sitting inside by myself, waiting for the light, while everyone had started wrapping equipment.  And I thought, I can go outside right now and scream at this person in front of everyone and subject them to same abuse they’ve subjected me to.  Or, I can do a quieter version of that, but let them get a taste of how it’s been for me the past few weeks.

And I sat there and despite my very, very deep anger, I realized that if I were to do that I’d win the battle and risk losing the war.  Even on this last day, 18 days in with only one shot to go, I might not get the shot I needed and risk not completing the film.  And, who knows what I would need from this person in the future?  Better to let this latest crappy behavior roll off my back.

And, most importantly, I realized I needed my energy for more important things.  At that point I was only a third of the way through my “war” and I needed every bit of energy to lead the team through the rest of the process.

Let me be clear.  I’m not suggesting you be a doormat.  You can’t be a doormat and lead a group of dozens of people through anything, let alone a film shoot.  You have to have confidence and boundaries and assertiveness at every turn.  And you have to know when and where to let the bad behavior, the lack of professionalism, the terrible decisions, the rudeness, roll off your back.  It’s about picking your battles, or even avoiding them altogether because you’re up to much bigger stuff.

My ego wanted to go scream at that person.  My commitment to making the best film I could stopped me and allowed me to “get over it” in less than 10 minutes.

So, what did I do?  I relaxed on the couch for the first time in weeks.  The sun went down and we got the shot.  While I can’t say I have love in my heart for this person, I don’t lose sleep over them either.  Part of getting good at letting it roll of my back is actually letting it go and getting on with the more important stuff.  It’s about actually embracing losing the battle in order to win the war.

I haven’t won the war, yet.  (We are still in post.)  But I’m well on my way.

Pushing the Boulder Up the Hill: Getting That Dang Film Into Production

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Girls can do anything!

If you didn’t already know this, I’m back from directing my first feature film.  We wrapped July 1st, a little less than a month ago.  I’ve recovered enough to start blogging about the experience.

I had a spontaneous Q and A today and there were lots of questions. But, this was the biggie that overshadowed them all…  How did you get that dang film into production?

This is a particularly poignant question because it took so long for me to get a film into production.  I worked on Saturn Returns for 5 years before we rolled camera.  I worked on a feature project before this one for 5 years.  I worked on another one before that for three years.  So, it’s taken a lot to get here.

As you can guess, there are several answers to this question, but let’s just start with commitment.  A year ago I came to a new place of commitment.  Let me tell you what it looked like:  I was going to shoot Saturn Returns in June 2014 or I was going to walk away from the project and from being a filmmaker.  No joke.  I didn’t come to this from a place of being mad or fed-up or desperate.  This decision was passionate but very calm.  I simply realized that the amount of work I’d done, the capacity I had to keep doing that amount of work, the patience of my husband and my supporters, all of this had a shelf-life and I was near the end of it.

So, I decided to pull out all of the stops.  Now, many of you know me and know that I’m a very committed, hard-working person.  So, this was a whole new level of energy, time and work.  I worked pretty much every night and weekend for an entire year.  This is in addition to my coaching business and to being the mother of three year old twins.  (No, I don’t have live-in help and I have very little family support besides my husband.)  It meant that every trip to Mammoth I had as many meetings as I could and sacrificed R and R.  It meant I worked every day of Christmas break.

I don’t tell you this to impress you.  I’m just telling you what it took.

But there’s more to it than just the hard work.  Because I’m not suggesting you live your life this way, far from it.

Simply put, I got willing to leave my dream behind if we didn’t go into production.  And I got clear that if I were to do that, I didn’t want to feel like I’d left anything on the sidelines.  I wanted to leave it all on the court.  No regrets for what I hadn’t done.

I didn’t make this decision because I thought it would be powerful, but it turned out to be extraordinarily empowering.  Every time someone came up with an objection, a concern, an obstacle, I weighed it against my commitment to go into production in June and my willingness to totally walk away from the project forever.   Push another year?  Sorry, no can do.  Push to September?  Same answer.  Wait for an actor?  Nothing doing.

Besides demanding that I work nearly every night and weekend for a year, this commitment had me doing things that were so far outside my comfort zone it surprised even me.  It had me asking things of people—investors, team members, actors and more—that I had previously been afraid to ask for.  And it had me doing it fast, with zero of the usual hand-wringing.  It had me doing things at a new level of ballsy, and I am no shrinking violet.

Really facing the prospect of walking away from my dream of directing a feature film had me look at my fears in a much more profound way then I ever have before.  I had to ask myself what I was willing to do for my dream.  No, the answer isn’t “anything.”  There are things I won’t do.  I won’t lie or cheat or steal or behave without integrity.  I won’t leave my husband or children for it.

But, I got willing to fail publicly.  That was a very, very big one for me.  And, I think it’s harder to risk failing publicly then it is to behave without integrity, frankly.

The other big answer to the question of how I got this dang film into and out of production is that I had one die-hard who was with me no matter what.  He happens to be my husband, Gregory.  And without him making this film wouldn’t have been possible.

It’s important to talk about this because big projects like this one don’t get done alone.  They take a team, as you know.  But it’s more nuanced then that.  Before the “team” there’s the one true believer that you absolutely must have.  You need one true believer who will stick by you no matter what.  And let me tell you, there was a time a few weeks out from our start date when everyone else dropped like flies.  We suddenly weren’t cool any more, and everyone else who’d been on for years fell like dominoes.  Though Gregory had doubts and concerns, he never stopped believing in the project and in me.  You gotta have someone like him.  Period.

So, this is the big answer to the big question of how I pushed this boulder up the hill and finally, after more then a decade, got my first feature into the can.  There’s a lot more to talk about and I promise I will do so.  Keep your eyes peeled for a blog on casting, one I’m going to call Riding the Bucking Bronco, aka Production, Coming Back to Earth (aka Transitioning Back to Your Real Life,) and more.

Hit me with questions, comments and thoughts.  It’s good to share it with you.  And, again, thank you so much for your support.