On Creativity: Why Make Things?

As maybe you’ve noticed, I’m not too high on the whole movie-making thing at the moment. Some might even say bitter. What, just because I go a little ranty from time to time about things I see in the industry like greed, sexism, and overall contempt for humanity?

Okay, I’m bitter. I have been for a while, but the big mistake I made, where I really turned the corner into negativity, happened maybe a year and a half ago when I started to ask myself (as part of this whole midlife whatever), “Why am I doing all of this? Why do I want to be a filmmaker at all? If I can’t support myself and afford to live decently without having to always worry about money, and maybe, I don’t know, have children, is it really worth it? What the hell am I getting out of all of this?”

Going back a bit, for those of you who don’t know (read: haven’t read my earlier blogs and so are wasting everyone else’s time with recap, yawn), I got into this business because I wanted to be a filmmaker. I got a graduate degree in film production because I wanted to be a writer and director and then I started working in the film industry because I felt like it was the best way to learn about how things were done in the professional world. I had started doing sound for people at film school and got a good reputation for it (that and camera assisting, the two, detail-oriented jobs that nobody wants because people only notice your work when you screw up — come on, we all know it’s true). People started to recommend me outside of school, and I took up booming as a way to meet sound people who might hire me. For a long time, I did that and wrote screenplays which never won the Nicholl, or anything else. High point: a nice rejection letter from Sandra Bullock’s production company, and if you don’t think that means anything, you’re dead to me.

But screenwriting in the wind (even for money, so I’m told) is not the most fulfilling pursuit because you’re not creating a finished product. You’re making something that’s a blueprint for a movie, but that deliberately leaves out a lot of the flesh involved in the fleshing-out part of making one because you want to leave room for the director and actors to fill in the details themselves. Plus, until the film gets made, you are just picturing Sandra Bullock saying your dialogue in your mind, and while that’s fun, it’s not really enough after a while if you give two shits about closure. (Which is why more than a few of my colleagues from film school and the business have given up screenwriting and are now published authors — four I can recall of off the top of my head). So around 2000, because I hadn’t completed anything of my own since my thesis, I decided to shoot and direct a small, pet-project documentary by myself on my Hi-8 camera. It looks and sounds kind of terrible, took five years to finish, and almost nobody saw it, but it had some insightful parts and was, yes, what we call all failed ventures, “a learning experience.” I spent another couple dead New York winters writing screenplays and traveling, and then, with a new documentary idea, a co-director/DP and two co-producers, I made another film, which got a grant and turned out really well, I think, and went to a handful of festivals — none of the big ones, but some good ones. High point: Stephen Colbert mentioned it at the end of his show, which made all of our friends freak out and gave us one full-house festival screening.

But then the film, which had to do with the war and came out around the time when everyone was basically sick of hearing about the war, kinda went nowhere. Now, mind you, “nowhere,” when it comes to documentaries, is a relative term. A few people did see the film at festivals and at community screenings, and you can watch it on iTunes and Amazon and Google Play and via a handful of other online distributors. But we still have no broadcast deal and we haven’t gotten any of our or our investors’ money back. Sure, we all kind of knew going in that we weren’t going to get rich, because you don’t make documentaries to get rich. But I did kind of think we’d break even, that the film would be more widely seen, and, most importantly, that it would move me to the next step of my career, where I could actually start to get paid to not just do sound on but actually make things for a living. But that’s not how it went, and as it turns out, that’s not that unusual. Many or perhaps even most documentarians don’t make a living at documentaries. There are a few, like Ken Burns and Michael Moore, who get to choose what they want to make and make a film every three to five years or so. Then there are a handful of other folks like Errol Morris, Barbara Kopple and Nanette Burstein who direct commercials or TV for hire every once in a while to earn money between making their own docs. Then there is pretty much everyone else, who has a supportive spouse and/or a side job, either teaching or working long, hard days in production or post, like I do. And you already kind of know what I think about that as a lifestyle choice.

Look, I’ve worked on some amazing projects and witnessed many phenomenal scenes being brought to to life. I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from watching talented actors turn in kick-ass performances, and do it perfectly and originally again and again and again (although it can be hard to enjoy it if they really do it again and again and again as a boom op, especially if there’s a lot of spontaneous head turning or screaming involved). But while being an actor or DP or editor does involve that act of creation, even when it’s on another person’s project, location sound is just about getting clean tracks. The only creative part might be the problem-solving, and that’s why you sometimes see sound people go out of their way to cleverly plant a mic in a vase of flowers, or hide a wireless lav inside a doctor character’s pocket pen. But the bulk of your workdays in the sound department are spent just figuring how to make it sound good — which, a lot of the time, given the challenges of noisy locations and lack of time and working around the lighting and the low-cut dress made out of something scratchy as hell or the occasional actor who hates being wired, means making it just not sound bad. For me, that isn’t creative and isn’t enough, because watching great creativity happen is not the same as creating something yourself. It’s just not.

“But so what?” I began asking myself. Sure, at some point, I had made having the opportunity to be creative a high priority in my life, but why?  I mean, for one thing, to do something creative for a living (as I talked about here), you need to have driving ambition — which I’m not sure I’ve ever had. An ambition for what? To impress people? To show everyone I could do it? To convey some higher truth? To get at some universal meaning for us all and bond over it? Am I a big enough narcissist to think that’s what I’m doing when I make things?  

To be rich and famous? Honestly, I’d always looked down on people who got into the film business for that, but now I was starting to think, well duh. Dorothy Parker once said, “I want nothing from Hollywood but money and anyone who tells you that he came here for anything else or tries to make beautiful words out of it lies in the teeth.” In other words, what the hell else were you really expecting to get? So few people in the industry are creatively satisfied, and if they are, they’re dissatisfied in some other way — like they’re pissed off about the fact that nobody recognizes their genius, they can’t pay their rent, or that nobody has given them $4 million to make a film on Kickstarter (doesn’t mean I think you deserved it, Zach Braff, just that people should get over it).

There was one good thing that did come out of all this wallowing. I remembered how once, a few years ago, perhaps during my last mid-life crisis (the one that happened in my 30s), my mother sighed and said to me, “Maybe we should have pushed you into something more practical.”  So then I realized: it was all their fault. I chose to be a filmmaker because I had overindulgent parents who always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, provided I didn’t break stuff or poison myself. And even when I did break stuff, like when they went away to California for a week and I had a party at the house and my friend Peter broke both the screen door and one of the bean bag chairs by riding it down the stairs, they thought it was funny — because I was generally such a good kid that they found a little bit of rule-breaking amusing. This didn’t shed light on any of the bigger existential questions I’d been facing, like why I’m still making films, or whether I should keep making films, but it did make it so at least now I had someone to blame.  

So there was that, but beyond it, I was kind of adrift, and I decided I wasn’t going to put my energy into any new films until I figured this out. I quit my screenwriting group. I stopped researching documentary ideas. I applied for a job at a big company and got rejected (after taking a test and doing four interviews back to back). I took an online class. I wallowed some more.

What I never stopped doing entirely, though, was making stuff. I’ve been taking photographs since high school and it was one thing I never really thought seriously about making a living at, so it’s never been freighted the way film is with my own and other people’s expectations. So when I stopped having an official place to put my creativity, I started just putting it there. Then, I started blogging. I mean, I had to write something, and nobody was reading it, so that didn’t matter either. Then a short time after that, my husband, a musician who was designing his own software to make music, had his own midlife crisis and decided maybe he should try put his creativity more into the software side of things. He started designing apps for a broader audience, then suggested we try making apps together. Last weekend, we even had our own two-person game jam, where we came up with a game, he wrote the code and I wrote the words (it’s a word-heavy game), and we finished a prototype in a weekend. I even took a hiatus from my hiatus from film and made a trailer for our first game, reasoning that it didn’t really count as a film per se the way I’d thought of them before because it was only 35 seconds long and I didn’t have to invest five years of my life in it.

What did all of this creative output have in common? That I got some direct return? That other people thought I was great because of it? That it’s all helping me get somewhere? No. It’s that I got a bizarre and perhaps foolhardy (considering the time commitment) amount of satisfaction out of just making this shit, and that I kind of like looking at and reading and watching it all and thinking, “Ok, cool.”

So, why make things? Well, because, still, in spite of everything, I just like making things. I’m glad I remembered that, because it’s really easy to forget when you’re trying to get something else out of it. And ultimately, if you’re creating for anyone other than yourself — and I don’t mean who’s paying for it, or who’s your audience, I mean who has to be made happy by it — it’s never going to feel worth it. Plus, making things means taking the risk of putting yourself out there and expressing your own ideas. The world needs more new ideas, and I know that a good kid like me, at least, needs to take more risks. They help me understand what I’m capable of.

And today, there really are no excuses not to make things. The creative process plus digital technology now equals access for so many of us who didn’t really have it back when I was shooting 16 mm and editing it on a flatbed with NYU’s equipment (yes, I am that old). Like taking photos? Use your phone and, if you want, share it five different places.  Want to make a film? Use the same phone, or if you can, spend $600 on a DSLR, then cut it on your laptop and share that (and by spending not too much more and doing a little research, you can also avoid having the sound be sucky, which I highly recommend). Have something to say? Write a blog. Maybe nobody will read it, or maybe eventually they will. At the very least, your family and your friends and maybe even your “friends” will see it. Maybe they’ll “like” it, and even actually like it. They’ll at least know you made something, and, more importantly, you’ll know.

So I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I know I’m going to keep making things. Because you know what it is that really makes you bitter about not making things?  Not making things.

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