“You look like a man that has many stories in him”
Those were the first words Ivo Alexander, my current producer and brother-in-arms, said to me.
It was a Sunday in the English summer of 2015. Few hundred people (including me) were attending the Guerrilla Filmmaker’s Workshop in London, organised, run and presented by Chris Jones.
Chris, an author and filmmaker himself, is the director of the London Screenwriters’ Festival among other things, but it’s hard to describe the first impression of him if you haven’t seen him on stage. I shall try to do so: the closest I can think of are those concerts that start with a flash-bang, that blinds you for a couple of seconds but before you manage to regain your eyesight you feel the impact of loud guitars, thumping bass coming from the speakers, and before you even notice, you’re head-banging with the rest of the audience… That’s about as accurate as I can get.
Seriously, once I witnessed him losing his voice on the very first day as he couldn’t control his enthusiasm and excitement to start the day with all of us aspiring filmmakers.
For those who flirted with the idea of making films for a living, oh boy, don’t you need people in your path that function as cheerleaders, people that motivate you, pick you up when stuff seems hopeless, show you ways you never considered, and just keep you focused. Unfortunately in my experience those are rare finds, even well-meaning friends and relatives that don’t want to see you disappointed discourage you, so that’s why Chris is a god-send in this “industry”.
If you want to pick people to go through all that with you, you need someone with those qualities, but not necessarily the same taste as you. That by itself will help you expand your knowledge in areas you never considered before, but one thing that person needs (as do you) is “resilience”. I will repeat that word, because I actually consider tattooing it on my skin as I write this… resilience.
Resilience: /rɪˈzɪlɪəns/ noun. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
One of those people among the audience that Sunday was Ivo (of Polish-German origin, brought up here in the UK). I was introduced to him by another attendee during lunch break. I remember it was a brief chat, but we already clicked as we shared our love for films and comics. And encouraged by Chris’ workshop, Ivo sent me a script for a short he wrote that same evening, called Third Day.
Oh, another word: Momentum.
Momentum /mə(ʊ)ˈmɛntəm/ noun. The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events.
That’s what we embraced that year. Ivo and I started working on, or trying figure out, how to make that rather ambitious short film happen, keeping in mind we had next to no clue. True, we had some self-taught experience to that point, but far from what was actually needed to execute what we had in mind. Still, we approached the whole endeavour with a mix of naivety, fear and determination. By the end of 2016 we had formed our production company Tin Cowboys Productions, finished Third Day, made the Star Wars fan film Jedi’s Code (you can watch it on YouTube) and were planning to make our first feature Welcome to Cobalt Life (see my previous blog post).
When I first sent Ivo my script for Welcome to Cobalt Life (yes, that script I wrote in 3 months) he was far from impressed. Actually he wasn’t impressed at all. He said to me: “Maybe it would be a good idea to get those characters out on a road-trip”.
Oh dear, I re-read my script and he was right, what I thoug
ht was a nail biting conspiracy thriller inspired by Three Days of the Condor (great film!) was just people sitting down and chatting. I liked my characters so much I literally protected them from anything happening to them, making the film in my head way more entertaining (it wasn’t). So I took time to do some changes but I suggested for him to collaborate in the writing process. Voilà! Exactly what that script needed! We took a few trips to Cornwall and stayed in a lodge with no internet (or distractions), to work on the script. We didn’t kill each other, but we had our arguments, but they were never personal; they were about certain parts of the story, characters, plot, scenes, etc. And that’s one thing to keep in mind when some disagreements present themselves while working on your project: if someone is willing to contradict you and fight their corner, they are trying to make the project better in their eyes; the project is theirs now too, never ever underestimate that.
Right… Did we finish a script we were happy with? Yes!
Did we start the journey to make the film happen? Absolutely!
Did we follow the advice from “industry people” and in general from people with more experience than us? We thought so.
Did that get us any further, and did we make something out of that? Yeeeeeeaaa.... kind of.
Did we learn anything at all from the whole experience? Hell yes! We will never, ever, approach any project that way again.
I’m going to jump ahead to 2019 and tell you a brief chat I had with an experienced producer. And I’m not being cynical here, he had a lot of experience and actually liked me, so I’m sure he meant well. So after explaining what we have already shot for Clay’s Redemption and when I was about to say we are just starting Post-Production, he misunderstood what I was saying (probably my still prominent South American accent) and he thought we were about to shoot those scenes:
Producer: oh that’s near impossible, you’ll need more crew...
Me: oh no, we already--
Producer: …and permissions and licenses that can take weeks or even months to acquire.
Me: … already shot that… it’s--
Producer: Plus the equipment you’d need for a night shoot is really expensive.
Me: DONE! It’s already done! We did shoot all those scenes already, they are all in the can, super duper wrapped (phew).
Producer: oh.. oh I see! Sorry I thought… well, really well done you guys!
Me: (….and breeeaaaaaatttthhheeee).
Look, I get it, it’s easier to get cynical, demotivated, discouraged and overwhelmed when you feel you’re swimming against the current. I’m not a motivation guru but if there is anything I learnt I can pass it on to you, it is this: “keep moving”. Even when you feel you’re going 1 step forward and 2 backwards, at least it’s not… 3 backwards (read that in a David Brent voice). But in all seriousness, move forward; in fact, during the whole production of Clay’s Redemption I had wallpaper on my phone that said “fail forward”, so even if things are not going they way you expect, which is probably most of the time on any film production, you’re still closer to your goal.
…and while doing so, make sure you have those allies that cheer you on.