The Empty Page

TheBlankPage

Most filmmakers can relate to life being a bit…crazy.  You have this passion to create, little resources to carry it out, and your day-to-day needs make changing this difficult.  That’s a frustrating reality that can consume your thoughts.  You get down on yourself, and it’s easy to lose focus.  I’ve made two feature films at this point in my life.  Today is my 27th Birthday.  Few who want to make movies ever get to, so I try to remind myself anytime I get whiny of how far I’ve come and how young I am.  I didn’t just get to make one, I made two.  That has to count for something.  There’s a responsibility that comes with the opportunity to make a movie, to learn and explore in such a time consuming and expensive way.  The world is changing fast all around us.  Short form content is gaining ground, technology is advancing at an alarming rate, crowdfunding has hit public consciousness, filmmaking tools have become cheaper and more democratized, streaming has created a panic in Hollywood, content is being pumped out at an exhausting pace, and the ability to be seen or gain attention no matter what you’re creating has become more difficult.  I find myself asking, where do I go from here?

My family and I recently relocated to Nashville, TN from Atlanta, GA where we lived for a few years (I’m originally from NY).  My personal life has been about as nutty as my professional life, with constant shakeups and twists.  Graduate High School, go to college, drop out of college, make movie 1, move to CA, move back to NY, move to TN, move back to NY, meet wife, finish movie 1, release movie 1, marry wife, move to GA, have baby 1, write movie 2, shoot movie 2, have baby 2, release movie 2, move to TN.  Phew!  Atlanta was supposed to be “the place” to settle, but that never worked out.  Part of moving all your stuff includes consolidating your stuff.  We spent lots of time throwing things away, deciding what was necessary, having garage sales, etc.  I realized that most of the filmmaking stuff I have rarely gets used anymore.  It’s just money sitting around.  The more I got rid of, the better I felt.  I’ve been selling lenses, cameras, accessories, computers, monitors, and even my editing desk, which I’ve yet to sell.  I look around my office and it’s getting emptier.  I’ve been living off a MacBook Air, which I’ve found liberating.  I’m also moving to a standing desk, something my body will thank me for.  There’s a practical side to this, and a metaphorical side.  I’m cleansing my creative life of all the distractions and the clutter.  There’s a method to the madness.  Folks have messaged me worried, asking if I’m “getting out of the game.”  On the contrary, I’m just getting started.

As I’ve explored my own feelings and frustrations with where I’m at creatively and professionally, there are a few constants that always arise.  Not only do I want to keep making movies, and not only do I want to pursue movies that are more “me,” but I want to be truly great at it some day.  I say “some day” because I can objectively understand that I’m far from great at this.  This is a life’s pursuit.  There are no shortcuts.  I spend a lot of time on the internet, reading the patterns industry wide as best I can to see where things are going, where the holes are, who’s filling them or innovating, etc.  I’ve spent time in different stages of thought.  Everybody goes through the “gear phase,” where you spend time on forums arguing about specs instead of picking up your camera and shooting something.  I’ve been through the “criticism phase” where you spend a lot of your time criticizing movies instead of creating something worth watching.  It seems obvious, but as I’ve removed one distraction after another and consumed the world of cinema, it always comes back to one simple thing: what’s on the page.  I’ve seen a wide variety of films and regardless of budget, script is king.  Nobody cares anymore what camera you shot your movie on, and I’m not sure they ever really did.  Whatever I write next, I want to strive for something better.  For something rich in character, for something with soul.  I’m trying to get my creative life simplified to as few distractions as possible, so all I have left is an empty page to fill.  Me, my laptop, a desk, and my film collection.  2014 was a movie consumption year, where I saw hundreds and hundreds of films.  This year is about getting back to basics.  Due to the move, my goal of reading almost 100 books this year was completely derailed.  I have to get back on the horse.  There’s no better time.  There are no great movies without great stories, and there are a lot of stories out there I’ve never consumed.  I’ve felt weighed down by everything around me, not realizing just how fast the time is passing while I waste time instead of consuming something useful.

I mentioned wanting to make movies, wanting to make them great, and wanting to make them “me.”  I’ve realized that making them more me is the only way to accomplish the other two things.  I’ve spent most of my time trying to conjure up ideas for people who don’t like what I like, who aren’t like me.  People find their artistic stride because they find a way to communicate with their unique perspective and voice.  Nobody likes to live in an environment that squashes who they are or keeps them from thriving.  I’ve found myself wondering what would happen if I just sat down and made something that carries my unique stamp, without worrying about how to sell it or to whom or whether or not it makes a few people annoyed or disappointed?  The stakes are too high and time is too short to worry about it.  A short film perhaps?  I used to scoff at shorts, but given how bottled up I feel, a short film is looking to be a great way to get some junk out of the basement.  Some sparks of creativity don’t work in 99 pages, but they could work great in 10-15.  I think more-so than a few years ago, short form content is coming into it’s own.  Kung Fury’s release nearly broke the internet the other day!  I have ideas, but the industry is in the middle of a shift, and nobody really knows where or when it’ll even itself out.  Still, I’m convinced that finding my unique perspective and voice and embracing that fully is the best way forward.  Making something pure and honest, and letting that piece of art find those who appreciate it.

One thing I’m thankful for is to be working in marketing 9-5.  If I’m not spending time telling my own stories, at least I get to spend it helping others tell theirs to the right people.  Getting to peek behind the curtain on projects that aren’t my own has lent more perspective about what does or doesn’t work, and where the risk/reward ratios really are.  While I get back to the empty page, there’s no better learning experience I could be getting.  It’s better than college.  Thankfully I have a knack for marketing, so I’m sure it’ll be apart of my professional life alongside my other pursuits for years to come.  Where both of those things collide, gel, or create friction is yet to be seen.

So where am I?  I’m on a journey.  Destination unknown.  A chronic dreamer with a great wife and two adorable toddlers who keep me from floating away (ball and chain is a positive for me).  Sleeping little, working a lot.  Life is a constant stream of insanity.  With every pound lost trying to shed the “dad body,” another pound shows up to take it’s place.  I’ve had one successful movie, and one (so far) unsuccessful movie.  I’ve inspired a few and angered plenty.  I have a lot of ideas, but nothing that says “make me” yet.  I work alone, and I’m on the constant hunt for a creative soul-mate.  I’m in a new town, a new church, making new friends, and soaking in the new scenery.  All seems to be well, but there’s just one little problem…that empty page.

FADE IN

large truman show blu-ray8

I’ve been wondering that myself.

Whiplash: Movie Review

Whiplash-4

I had been waiting to see Whiplash ever since the reviews started pouring in.  Here was a movie right up my alley!  I love intense films between a small number of characters, because you get to spend a lot of time with them and dive deep into their psyche.  Well, nothing could prepare me for what I saw a few nights ago.  I saw about 270 films this year, and a number of TV shows start to finish.  Whiplash had the sort of finesse, quality, and precision a guy like me dreams about.  It’s without a doubt, my favorite film of 2014.  This review might seem a bit gushing, but I really don’t know how else to convey my experience.  I sat till the lights came up when it was over, then drove home about 40 miles with the radio off in silence.  I had to think.  The film had rocked me, and I related to the story on such a deep rooted level that it caused a sort of numbness.  How often do we get a movie this good?

Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old jazz drummer who, at the start of the film, is accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the United States. He begins dating Nicole, a college student working at a cinema frequented by Andrew and his father. He aspires to become one of the drummer “greats”, like Buddy Rich. With many of his classmates knowing that an infamous Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is looking for a new drum alternate, Neiman successfully auditions for him and joins his class.  The story goes on to develop the teacher/student relationship between Andrew and Terence, an emotional powder-keg set to detonate at any moment.

Beyond the story and characters, what really knocked me out in the film was something I mentioned up top: PRECISION.  This film is incredibly precise.  For a film shot in 19 days and edited in 9 weeks, it’s a miracle of editing.  Every beat of the film feels perfectly crafted.  It may sound hamfisted to say the film is “pitch perfect” or “hits every note,” but it’s a gem.  I really hope it gets an Oscar Nomination for Best Editing.  It would take me forever to sit down and craft a game-plan to even attempt some of the sequences in the movie.  For a guy so young, Damien Chazelle shows a remarkable amount of craftsmanship.  It’s not surprising he’s being tapped for multiple projects going forward.  His DP Sharone Meir lenses the film with a beautiful pallet, helping Damien fully realize his vision.  The intense color in the film, particularly the warm tones and striking contrast lend to the film’s intensity.

feature2

If J.K. Simmons doesn’t grab an Oscar this year I will be very disappointed.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a performance as good as Terence Fletcher.  The very first scene of the film tells us everything we need to know about him.  J.K. takes that instrument of his and knocks you out in a crescendo of vulgarity that scares you one moment and makes you laugh the next.  He was such a fascinating character to watch.  He (the character) is clearly great at what he does, but his abusive behavior with his students, his demeanor, and other aspects of how he carries himself makes you unsure of his intentions.  Is this guy just a jerk?  Does he relish it?  He strives for perfection, for greatness in his students, but his methods are questionable.  The film is basically a giant guessing game, with you almost wanting him to push his students and Andrew’s character at times, and in other moments you want to tackle him in frustration.  Like any great film, each new scene reveals something new about his character, and keeps the guessing game going.  What J.K. does so well is ride that line of anger and sympathy.  I’ve always found him to be extremely likable as an actor, and he brings a lot of weight to the role of Terence.  There’s a moment where he arrives in class to announce one of his former students is dead.  He is emotional, sincere, and clearly shaken.  It’s in those moments that he becomes something much more than a man who yells.  This is what a great antagonist looks like.  It would be so easy to make his character a brute who screams and yells profanities with no humanity.  In other hands, he’d be just another one-dimensional bad guy, square and boring, but Writer/Director Damien Chazelle rounds out his character on the page and J.K. gives him emotional weight.

Andrew Neiman played by Miles Teller is equally fascinating.  I’ve been watching Teller for a few years now, and he’s A-list talent all the way.  The upcoming Oscar race will likely secure that, when he gets his Nomination.  If he doesn’t, like Simmons, I’ll be hugely disappointed.  It would be fantastic if he won.  Teller plays the role of Andrew with as much intensity as Simmons, but his is more internal.  The most incredible scenes are those with him alone, drumming.  His intense desire for greatness and the brooding rivalry with Terrance portrays what might be the finest example of the artist’s struggle ever put on screen.  You wince while Andrew practices with so much rage that blood pours from his finger tips and hands.  He plays through the pain before finally dipping his hands into jugs of ice water.  He goes through one bandage after another for the cuts and blisters that constantly develop, worsen, and break open.  The film is a literal portrayal of the artist’s struggle as well as a powerful metaphor.

whiplash-miles-teller-andrew

What does it take to be truly great?  I can’t go on about the story without spoiling the film, but as a filmmaker, and someone who has always been artistic, I could understand the pain and the anguish Andrew was going through.  I’ve had my own days with bloodied hands, just different context.  I’ve thrown things, screamed obscenities, and boiled with rage, all for the sake of trying to create something.  The struggle is real, and the desire to be truly great at something without the blood, sweat, and tears, means little.  You’ll either bleed to reach for that greatness or you won’t.  Desire isn’t enough.  As Terence says to Miles at one point, “There are no two words in the english language more harmful than good job.”  While some may scoff at the sentiment, we live in a culture dominated more and more by the acceptance of mediocrity, school activities where everyone gets a medal to not cause “emotional distress,” and other sorts of conditioning.  Our military pushes our troops farther than they think they can go, not by holding their hand and giving them a hug, but through a level of intensity that is extraordinary.  To be truly great at something always requires more than you expect to give, and everyone needs someone in their life who’s willing to push them to the limit, and sometimes far over it.  Greatness is something few people achieve.  The question that Whiplash asks is: How bad do you want it?