The Approach or Nervous All the Time

27 07 2010

Before I really dive into this post I want to take a second to acknowledge that a lot of good things are happening with Sparrow Songs and we’re grateful for all of them.

The first bit of news that’s equally exciting and rewarding is that this year we’ve been named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual list of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.   I’ve been a fan of the magazine and its ground-eye view of the work of independent film for a long time so it’s really flattering to be a part of this list.

The second piece is that we’ve got a Kickstarter campaign going for the project and we’ve already raised over $500.  That support and the feeling of people literally investing in the project feels great.

All that said, it’s another month, which means in the process of making a short documentary we’re back at square one.  The calendar doesn’t care if we’re on the front page of The New York Times, the clock is ticking and there’s a film to be made.  Right now we’re mired in the most nerve-wracking phase of the whole process which I think of as The Approach.

You have an idea, you can see how all the pieces will fit, there’s the potential for amazing visuals, you might learn something about yourself by making this, the audience may learn something about life by watching it, all this good wonderful stuff is going to happen when you make this, it’ll be hard but we’ll pull through and then we’ll all eat pizza and drink a beer or two.

Okay, but this is a documentary and that means a subject is involved and unless you’re Ken Burns or Jaques Cousteau that subject has a living, human component.  The only way you can make this film is if you somehow get this person (or worse, these people) to agree to make this film with you.  And you know what?  There is an inverse-proportional relationship between your level of excitement about the project and their apathy toward it.

For a long while I’ve wanted to make a piece about the poet Gary Snyder.  He’s the last of the living Beats, he’s lived his life according to a beautiful and rigid set of beliefs and his understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world is revolutionary and ancient.  I’ve read most of Snyder’s books and read his collection of interviews earlier this summer.  It’s not out-of-bounds to say that he’s one of my heroes.  Earlier this month I contacted the publicist at his publishing house, had a great conversation and composed a sincere email to her about our aims for the piece. She forwarded the email to Snyder.  Five days later he said no.

Three or four days after that I started kicking around an idea for a different piece.  It wouldn’t be interviewing one of my heroes but it held the chance for me to explore a question that I’m trying to work through in my own life.  I did research on whom I needed to contact, sent emails, got responses, sent more emails and set up a meeting.  During a meeting like this – or more often a phone call –I do my best to explain Sparrow Songs and to convince the person I’m speaking with that this is an honest attempt to understand the lives around us.  I have no credentials, no real professional presence; I’m just sitting there trying to reassure them that this piece about their lives isn’t going to be sandwiched between videos of a cat fighting a roomba.  You do your best, shake hands and leave the room. Then wait.

That’s where we are at this point in the month.  I’m supposed to get an email any minute now letting me know if we’re on for a three-day shoot or if I need to scramble and start the process all over.

I don’t think there’s any corollary to this in narrative filmmaking.  You may not get a location or an actor might fall through, but you never have to ask a character’s permission to tell their story.

The whole thing creates a certain Zen-like attitude toward the stories themselves.  You learn that the more force you apply the less likely you are to get the results you want and when you do hear a ‘no’ you can either drive yourself crazy thinking about how great the piece could’ve been or to trust that there’s a different piece you need to make right now.

That being said, the waiting is never easy.


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