Monday, May 18, 2009

Good Days, Bad Days and Family

One of my cast members told me that his time in Vietnam was some of the happiest and saddest times in his life.  There were good days and bad days.  Naturally, it was a war.  The highs were high and the lows were very low.  He laughed a lot.  Cried occassionally.  Wouldn't really trade that time for anything.

Today, I am having a down day.  Writing, for me, becomes very difficult on days where I am not the happiest.  But today I have decided to write anyway, because it's important to remember the challenging days just as much as we remember the joyful ones.  Filmmakers know that the good becomes even better when contrasted against something bad.  It's why we have comic book heroes and arch nemises, after all.  Superman's great, but compared side-by-side with Lex Luthor he looks even better.  So, we have our good days and we have our bad days.  My point is that it's important to recognize and appreciate both. 

My reason for writing is not to complain or rant, but merely to remember that I struggled today.  The film is a blessing in so many ways.  A challege that has helped me grow into a much more confident young woman.  It's helped me understand what I want to do with the rest of my life.  But, on days like today, I have to appreciate the pains that come with those joys.

Today was a struggle, for certain.  And when one thing goes wrong, it's easy to see how everything can come crashing down around you in a second.  I write in these ambiguous ways because the details of what specifically went wrong are nebulous to anyone that doesn't know me very well.  My sister came over, listened to me, and sat with me.  It's the people to whom you are incredibly close that make things like a documentary film happen.  They may not be doing a specific task like designing, editing or writing, but they support you and hold you up in ways you never knew you needed.

Without my sister, without my family and friends, I would never be able to dream of doing something like this--and it is to them (as well as many others) that I am incredibly indebted and grateful.  We are given a family by birth, but we have the chance to make our own families at various points throughout our lives.  Seth Godin happens to call them tribes.  We get to make our own circle of people that are interesting and valuable to us.  Entrepreneurs call them a brain trust.  Businesses call them a board of directors.  There are many names for family.

One of the Montagnards to whom I have been introduced as a result of this project--a great leader in his community who works harder than many men I've met--calls his American friend a brother.  It's such a simple term, but holds so much weight.  Brother.  It's a term they use with love and respect, honor and gratitude.  Brother.  It is a term that unites two grown men who made great sacrifices together, long ago, so that I could enjoy freedom in my country (and do things like make a documentary film).

Family.  We are given a family, but we also make our own families as we journey through life.  It's not without our families that we accomplish much of significance, either.  Sure, it's possible to do great things without the support of your family (whether a given or created family), but it's so much more enjoyable to share the experience.  Even when you're pitifully sobbing like I was today.

There are many people that make a project like this happen.  Some you see in the opening credits.  Some you don't.  Yep, in a film, there are so many people that make it come together.  And that's one of the reasons I really enjoy this form of art: the collaborative efforts.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, but it feels like one of those barn raising events where the whole community comes together to build something.  And that's pretty excellent in my book.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Vision of the Future

Last weekend I had a vision of the future of this film. It was really exciting! My team and I had finished it. Normally, that alone would be enough to be exciting, but this particular vision showed me possible next steps. The premonition was specifically about special screening events.

My whole team and I--cast, crew, family, friends--we were getting all dolled up for a screening of the film at The Rialto in Raleigh, N.C., or at The Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, N.C. It was a chance for the whole team to come together in person and be recognized. The entire event was classy, beautiful and entertaining. It caused a buzz about the Montagnards, people were asking questions, learning and seeking more information. The Montagnards that live in Raleigh performed traditional dances and songs, there was a Q&A session with a panel of experts like John Plaster, Dr. Hickey, Mike Benge and Greg Stock. Even the media came, asking questions about the Montagnards and how the film relates to what's happening today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What gave me the greatest sense of hope was the possibility of raising funds for real change. Wouldn't it be exciting to not only honor our allies, but to use the sales of tickets to raise money to help enrich the lives the Montagnards lead here in the United States, the country that abandoned them. The possibilities were endless in this vision of the future.

The pressure is on. I so desperately want to finish this film so that it can be shared. The people I have met, the information they have shared, the stories they've told...I hope I do it justice.

Chaotic Space

Deadlines, deadlines. At my full time job, and in life in general, deadlines are not to be missed. It's a sign of keeping your word that you'll meet a deadline, a sign that you're worthy of trust, that you can be held accountable. That, when you give your word, it actually means something. You've made a promise, and it's up to you to keep it.

I keep giving myself hard deadlines so that I can finish a certain stage of the project. I need a date, a deadline, to work towards. My background is in graphic design, which is typically done for a client, which means there's usually a hard deadline. So, you learn to work backwards. If the design is due three months from now, you can set up deadlines for the process: first draft, review, revisions, etc. For the film, though, there is no client. So, these self-imposed deadlines help me keep things moving forward. It's all in my hands right now, and the work of my volunteers can't start until I finish this battle against myself to stop tweaking the screenplay.

Many people have asked why write a screenplay if it's a documentary. I've gotten a lot of questions about that. Well, it's the road map for me and my team. We have 30+ hours of interview footage, a mountain of original images, archived 8mm film, original audio, and eventually original animated graphics and original scores. We have a volunteer team of editors, writers, designers, musicians, managers, marketers, programmers and more that ask to help on a weekly basis. Simply put, the screenplay is a way to make order of the seemingly chaotic space we're in right now.

It's easier to tweak lines of text now, rather than wait until we're down the road. It's easier to battle myself, alone in my house, than drive my editors crazy by asking them to move footage around on the timeline. We are, after all, volunteering so I want to make it fun for everyone. If it starts to feel like work, then they might walk away. That's a very real, very scary thought for me. This group of volunteers is made up of my friends, colleagues, acquaintances. If they feel the need to walk away because it's no longer in their best interest or they have a major conflict in time committments, then that's one thing. But if they feel the need to walk away from the project because it's no longer fun, then that is altogether very different. I can't pay them, so it absolutely must be fun.

So, I want to protect them and give them an enivornment in which they can flourish and do their best work. Work they are proud of, and want to share with their network. Work that builds their portfolio so they can get paid jobs. Great, intelligent, talented people are hard to find. I want to make more films, and I only want the best people on my team. And, I want to take the lessons that I've picked up from my full time job and work in the most effiicent means possible. It's all been about processes for me at work in the past two years, and I've not forgotten those lessons while working on this film.

There comes a time and a place where you have to recognize that you've got it as good as you can get it right now, though. An artist is rarely ever finished with a piece of work. The time to stop tweaking is coming for me soon. I've been working on the screenplay since January, when I returned from my interview with John Plaster in Wisconsin. There is much more work to be done, and I'm holding up the process by tweaking too much.

So, my final deadline is the end of May. I boldy state that I will finish it this week, before my Memorial Day vacation. We shall see, we shall see. Wish me luck, folks. I'm in a battle, and it shall end soon! Man versus self. Who wins?

On the other hand, I must pat myself on the back for just a moment. I've been reviewing the footage and transcripts, and it's quite refreshing to see just how far I've come in the interviewing process.

Previously I mentioned that there are a lot of synergies between my full time job and this film. What I've learned at work, I have applied in my filmmaking. And now, what I have learned on my film, I can apply at work. Interviewing skills help save money, basically. The more talented the interviewer, the faster you get to clips you can use. The faster you get to clips you can use, the less time and money is spent filming and then hunting for those clips.

Think of it in the America's Next Top Model terms. Tyra's always congratulating her models when they get a lot of great photos, especially when they have the final pick in the first few frames. Back in the film days, you wanted a model who could strike a winning pose quickly because it means less money spent on film. Oh, man, I spent so much money on film! Today, even without film, the same rules apply because time is money. The faster you get to the winning end product, the more money you save. The more money a model saves a photographer or creative director, the more jobs she'll book and the more successful she can be. Similarly, the more skilled you are as an interviewer, the more money and time you'll save, allowing you to keep building your portfolio.

If only I had these skills at the beginning of the project. We must live and learn, though. We must learn to yeild to that which we do not know, so that we can grow in the chaotic space. We should surrender to where we are in life, and go into something new open minded and ready to learn. This project, as I previously mentioned, has helped me grow in so many ways. Ways that I will be thankful for the rest of my life. There's no doubt that my world is changing. It's one unbelievable dream come true.

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
--T.S. Elliot

"The ability to let something go, to yield and thence to empty, is essential to growing. New skin does not flourish until the old has been sloughed off."
--Nicola Phillips