Requiem for a Film

Let me begin in medias res. In November of 2015, I’m standing in an NYU lecture hall, pitching a script I’ve been working on for two years to a professor who will decide whether or not to give me $1500 to make it into a film. Two months before my pitch, I’m walking into class on the first day of my senior year of college, sizing up my classmates. Six months after my pitch, I’m standing outside my location at 6 am with my morning coffee and a cigarette, about to walk onto set for the first day of shooting.

Or no, let me start here: It’s my sophomore year of college and I’m writing a script in my dorm room; I got the idea from a random writing prompt I googled when I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. Two years later I’m writing a new draft of that script in my first apartment, while playing Halsey’s first album on repeat. Nine months after my shoot, as Trump is inaugurated, I’m applying to my first film festival. As I settle into my first job out of college, I’m getting my first festival acceptance. It’s Thanksgiving break my senior year of college, and I’m finding out I got the money to make my film. It’s winter break my senior year of high school, and I’m finding out I got into NYU. It’s April of 2016, and I’m calling a wrap on my last shooting day.

And just to satisfy the rule of three: It’s my senior year of college I’m looking over the cliff that is my graduation; I can’t see anything at the bottom. I’m having panic attacks every day. I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship with New York City. It’s me and a few friends against the world, and the world is winning. I’m 19, I’m 21, I’m 23. I’m on fire.

….Maybe I should just start here instead: In the spring of 2016, I shot a short film titled “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?!” as part of my senior film production class at NYU. Spring of 2016 might carry some evocative memories for you, at the very least as a symbol of pre-Trump America. Afrer all, consider that it was Obama’s last spring, and/ or the last pre-Trump spring; the last spring before a long winter of discontent would begin. In the spring of 2016 none of us thought Trump could ever be president, while some of us thought Bernie could be president. In general, the world was a much more innocent place. Or we could all pretend it was, anyway.

It’s not that I wasn’t political back then. When a guest would visit our production class, I was introduced by my teacher as “the class feminist,” and my film itself was about my understanding of myself as a leftist woman artist trying to succeed in a film industry made for men, not to mention for apolitical neo-liberals. But we can probably all agree that across the political spectrum, spring of 2016’s level of engagement was nothing compared to spring of 2017. I bring this up the way the narrator of Stand By Me sets the stage for the 1950s: it was a simpler time. Back then a body on the railroad tracks, or a Nazi in the public sphere, was cause for shock.

So then, see the me of 2016: I’m wearing a black sweater that I still spend half my days in, and I’m squinting because I won’t admit I need glasses. I love to talk about how NYU’s film program is anti-intellectual, which is true, but I also just love to feel like I’m hyper-intellectual, and have a bit of a thing for delusions of persecution/ righteous anger/ raging against the machine that’s a bit unfocused at this moment in time. I see so many, many things in black and white that are now the most obfuscatory of grays to me. This me is a lot more saturated with adrenaline, and a little pallid from my Marlboro Reds. This me actually thinks art can make a difference in the world. This me even thinks it’s the only thing that can make a difference! So many idols untoppled, so many ideals intact. Fade in on this me, walking into the first day of class.

 

NYU’s Advanced Production Workshop starts out with eighteen film students, then cuts that number down to twelve by rejecting one third of the thesis pitches presented. The first day of production class felt like entering a Battle Royale; eighteen would enter, but only twelve would leave. Imagine my pleasant surprise when the people I thought I’d have to fight to the death actually became the people who made me look forward to class every week.

Since we were in film school, I would love to say our class was like some high-fallutin movie or show that will make everyone think I’m cultured, but in reality, if I had to compare the class to any piece of media, it would either be Glee or Project Runway. With a pinch of the Breakfast Club. That is to say, we were all a bunch of odd, outcast, and obsessive characters who had been suddenly thrust into a competition for money that could make our artistic careers take off. At the same time, we all ended up seeing a lot more of each other’s vulnerabilities and foibles than we would have expected. We were in such a vulnerable place, after all. While we were pretending to already be professionals in the industry we were trying to make it in, we were each about to find out if we had what it took, and none of us really knew if we did. Not for sure.

That class, our teacher, what it meant for us all to be thrown together at such a moment, is the subject of another essay. Or maybe a Secret History or Dead Poet’s Society style opus. Suffice to say, I put together a Powerpoint that convinced my teacher, my classmates, and the good people at NYU Production Safety to give me a rather large check. I spent that check over my spring semester on about a billion things, like food for my crew, a fee to the elementary school serving as the setting for my story, and a couple luxe camera lenses to make it all look pretty. It was a labor of love, and of a bunch of other, more negative emotions as well.

Often you’ll hear filmmakers refer to their films as their babies, and it’s an apt metaphor. You end up sleep deprived from being up at all hours taking care of this thing that will completely fall apart without your constant supervision, stressed to the point of wondering why you embarked on this journey in the first place, often going broke from the ever-increasing costs of giving your new offspring everything it needs to succeed. Being on set making a film often feels like giving birth, since the amount of literal blood, sweat, and tears you can expect to put into a film is comparable to what it would take to expel a new life form from your own body. Sometimes it’s like being pregnant, because everyone wants to put their hands on your growing creation and tell you what they think you should name it and every other little opinion they have that you definitely didn’t ask for. Pregnancy takes nine months, which is on par for the pre-production for a short film, but editing it and the rest of post-production can take years after shooting—most filmmakers hope that it won’t take eighteen years. Going through labor usually takes twelve to eighteen hours, which encompasses most shoot days on a film set (but not all).

Film feels visceral to its audience. Early film audiences fled theaters because they thought a train heading toward the camera in the film they were watching was actually going to hit them. Despite how immediate film feels, though, it’s actually the most premeditated art form of all. A scene of a film isn’t created in one continuous run-through with the actors; little parts of it are shot, usually out of order, until the filmmaker has many fragments of film that will eventually be put together like a mosaic in the editing room to become a continuous story. Therefore, all the little pieces have to be painstakingly planned out, and a director has to keep track of both the big picture and the individual tiles to ensure they all come together as planned.

To work out all those little mosaic tiles takes a long time, a long time which is called “pre-production.” Along with the budget I got from NYU, I had a second budget of time, which I spent working out each tile I wanted to make for the film, and how I would assemble them all later in editing (editors: see what I did there?). I spent the month before the film meeting up with members of my crew to make or approve creative choices, with my actors to rehearse, and with the people in charge of my location to get permits squared away. I even went to a couple entry level production classes at NYU to encourage the freshmen to come PA on set. However, I also spent plenty of time sitting in The Bean in the East Village, doing work while sipping iced coffee and resisting their gourmet Pop Tarts (New Yorkers, you know what I mean; everyone else, don’t ask).

Expecting parents seem to do nothing but prepare for their babies. I have thankfully never been one, but that’s the sense I get. They all read books on things like parenting, the merits of “natural birth,” and nutrition during pregnancy. They do pre-natal yoga and take classes to prepare them for going into labor. They get baby showers thrown for them—and god knows I wish someone had thrown me a “film shower” where everyone brought me camera lenses and sound equipment. When I think of the time period when I was making my thesis film, I think of myself gearing all my energies toward it. When the me of 2016 planned out my day, I treated things like food, leisure time, and sleep as means toward the end of keeping me mentally and physically healthy enough to stay productive for the film. This may sound like a Spartan existence to you, but almost three years later those days remain some of the happiest of my life, days when I figured out who I was and who I wanted to be more concretely than ever before.

While a film is a director’s baby, sometimes making a film is like being born yourself, since it feels like the film is going to be the literal beginning of your entire life. The whole rest of your existence so far has just been gestation for the one really important thing you were put on this earth to do, which is make your film. And maybe that’s the fifth coffee of the day talking, or any of the other recreational and performance-enhancing drugs you, as a film student, take regularly as a coping mechanism for the lifestyle essentially forced on you by the film industry, and by film school as a microcosm of that industry. Or maybe you’re just another narcissistic NYU student thinking you’re the center of New York City and New York City is the center of the world, or maybe now that you’ve put this much of your time and money and self into the film you can’t imagine it being anything other than worth that investment because otherwise you’d have a total psychological meltdown, but honestly despite all those possible reasons you can’t help but feel like you’re really doing something that matters, and it makes all the self-punishment worth it if you’re going to come out of it with a final cut of this film that you just know is going to be amazing if you can just get all the pieces in the same place at the same time and put them together.

Because you see, making a film is an act of mad hope as much as it is of Type-A planning. It is creating something out of nothing; it is saying “let there be lights! Camera! Action!” No one makes a film on a whim. Films are born out of obsessions, traumas, fatal flaws. Making a film is the kind of experience that reminds you the word “passion” comes from a Latin word meaning “to suffer,” and that Christian theologians used it to mean the experience of being entered by the Divine. If you’ve seen the Ecstasy of St. Theresa, you know what I mean: to Theresa, Martin Luther, and Augustine, a passion was an external force that moved through you, possessing you and giving you thoroughly as much pain as pleasure. “Passion” is also related to the Greek word “pathos,” referring to the kind of madness that sent Ahab after Moby Dick.

To the me of 2016, my film was everything. It had taken up the last two years of my past, and it could determine my future. My classmates and I were making these films in our senior years not just to put our whole four-year education’s worth of craft to use, but also to jumpstart our post-college lives. We would all have better chances of success if we could show potential employers a successful short film along with our degree and resumes of unpaid internship experience. The films would act as calling cards, showcasing our style to anyone who wanted to know what our work was like. In that sense, we had to create our styles while making our films as much as we were defining the styles we already had.

However, while you are born and give birth while making a film, making a film is honestly a lot like dying too, and not just because that is often literally how you feel due to the mental and physical strain! You’re giving yourself, your whole self, to a bigger thing. That sense that your whole life has been preparation for making your film can feel as much like an end as it does a beginning. When you come to the end of the final shoot day, you find yourself wondering what you’re going to do when you wake up and you’re suddenly back at home without your film set to go to. What will you do with your life after your film? What will be your purpose? And if it doesn’t live up to your expectations, how will you go on? Who will you be? What will you have to show for your labors? To put all my energy into a film the way I did and not get anything for it would certainly have felt like death to me.

It was slightly over six months after I wrapped that Trump was elected. As we come up on two years since the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about how narrowly I, my classmates, and the whole class of 2016 missed the Trump presidency. If Trump had come earlier or our senior year later, I would have pitched my film the Friday after the election. We would have come together that day to help each other through the experience. We would have made our films during the Russia investigation; during Michael Flynn’s testimony, and James Comey’s. Those of us who have survived sexual assault might have found our work affected by Trump’s election, or perhaps it would have galvanized those members of our class to work even harder.

Despite whatever might have happened, here’s what did. One year after shooting and four months into the Trump presidency, my thesis is finished and has been accepted to a few film festivals. About six months after that, after moving to LA and while watching the #metoo movement begin, I release it online after a festival run that included 23 festivals and 6 awards. Three days before Trump is inaugurated, my editor and I finish the final cut. Long after all of that, I’m visiting New York and editing the first draft of this essay, while planning my triumphant move back to my favorite city. I’ve gone from my senior year of college to what one could call my junior year of life. The lifespan of my short film has come and gone, and now it mainly exists as an embedded Vimeo link on my website, along with a page visitors can scroll to check out the laurels from its festival run. College is over for me too, and someday even Trump will be gone. To quote H.P. Lovecraft by way of J.K. Rowling, “and with strange eons, even death may die,”—but perhaps it will be immortalized in someone’s student film.

Comic credits:

Pictures for Sad Children, by John Campbell

Reparrish comics by R.E. Parrish

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