Some useful advice on filmmaking from people who've been there.
Last Tuesday, I went to see Bounce Cinema's 'Bounce Takeover' – an evening of indie short films at the Genesis Cinema in Shoreditch.1 The films were great, but I especially loved the Q&As with the creators, which were packed with I-needed-to-hear-that insights. Here are some of my favourites. (By which I mean: here are the ones I remember, because I didn't think to make notes.)
1 I hate myself for almost every part of this sentence, but I guess this is who I am now.
One: if you're stuck, try challenging yourself
Writer/director Luke Davies said that he came up with the idea for Unleaded after reading about the importance of conflict in several screenwriting books.2 As he describes here to Short of the Week, he just imagined his friend in the most stressful possible situation:
"A close friend of mine is incredibly paranoid and hates being in any sort of confrontational situation. Physically he’s small, weak, and slightly on the tubby side. Basically he’s the polar opposite of a traditional hero. The idea for this film came from challenging myself to think up a story where a character like this could be the hero and save the day."
“It was really down to an entirely selfish desire. I remember the first thing I said about this year’s run is: ‘I’m going to do a chamber piece, with no money, in the middle, because I haven’t done one in ages and I’d like to prove that I can actually write.’”
Similarly, Bill Burr's epic stand-up routine about Koko the gorilla – a highlight from his 2017 special, Walk Your Way Out – came from a challenge to write a routine that was mostly act-outs. (Unfortunately, I can't remember where I learned this, but I think it's somewhere in this episode of The Comedian's Comedian Podcast. I'm such a pro.)
This approach has the added advantage of pushing you out of your comfort zone, which is almost always a good thing. My personal challenge is to include songs and music in my stand-up routines – especially since Flight of the Conchords are, by far, my favourite act to see live.3
If you're feeling stuck on a project, what could you challenge yourself to do?
2 This is of course a paraphrase, because of the aforementioned lack of note-taking. Apologies if I've misrepresented anything.
3 But I should probably learn to sing first, because I don't want to push the audience out of their comfort zones.
Two: stick with the ideas you love
When asked about her inspiration for We Love Moses, filmmaker Dionne Edwards said that she really wanted to write a story about a brother and sister who were in love with the same person – and the short grew organically from there. In an interview with Black Girl Nerds, she describes how she uses this enthusiasm-based approach to commit to finishing scripts:
"I have to be in love with it – it’s as simple as that... I’ve recently finished the first draft of a feature film script, which has been in my head for 2 years and I know there’s a long challenging road ahead – but I’m in love with the story and that’s the thing that gets you over all the bumps in the road."
As a stand-up, this is especially comforting to remember as we enter the season of Edinburgh Fringe applications – that magical time of year when we have to commit to show descriptions before we have any idea what our shows will be about.4
To wit: I've already signed up for three shows at the Brighton Fringe, which are apparently about my decision not to have children – and my confidence in delivering that show is decreasing pretty sharply every single day. I don't have any routines! I don't have an ending! I don't even know what I want to say! But that's okay. I've chosen an idea that resonates with me, and excites me when I think about it – so I guess all I can do is put in the hours and trust the process.
If you're feeling bored with a project, what drew you to it in the first place?
4 My personal favourite example of this: James Acaster's blurb for his 2015 show Represent: "'Love is the absence of judgement' (Dalai Lama XIV). Running his mouth off about a bunch of stuff nobody even cares about - it's James Acaster. Nifty. Snazzy. 30 years old. Doing his best to improve his posture." In the end it was about jury duty.
Three: don't always trust your inner critic
Perhaps the most illuminating thing I learned: after he finished editing Unleaded, Davies didn't actually want to show his film to anyone because he thought it was terrible. It was his producer, Amy Banks, who convinced him otherwise – and I'm glad she did, because it was probably my favourite short of the night! Your inner critic isn't always as smart as they think they are.5
Actually, that's not true. That voice can sometimes be useful – like when you're trying to make your work better. As Dan Harmon describes in his brilliant advice for defeating writer's block:
"And then, after you write something incredibly shitty in about six hours, it’s no problem making it better in passes, because in addition to being absolutely untalented, you are also a mean, petty CRITIC. You know how you suck and you know how everything sucks and when you see something that sucks, you know exactly how to fix it, because you’re an asshole."
I guess the trick is figuring out the difference between what's useful and what's not. 'This scene is a bit lame and needs tweaking' is good; 'no-one wants to read a blog post about what you learned from an evening of short films, so set it on fire' is probably worth ignoring... I think?
Is there any work you're hiding from us, because your inner critic is talking too loudly?
5 The other lesson here is that it's good to have supportive friends and colleagues.
And of course...
It's not too late to get started!