After the Feature: Gathering Film as an Art and Experience

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What if you were to jump through hoops of fire, over a collapsing bridge, and through a gauntlet of your worst fears? Only then to confront the daunting dragon and duel it out until exhaustion, slaying it once and for all. The only caveat would be that you would get a pat on the back as your reward- instead of the princess you risked your life for.  If that is something you can see yourself doing again and again, then I welcome you to the world of independent feature filmmaking – but I say that not in jest, and I will tell you the reasons why. So stay optimistic and get used to keeping a smile on your face as a filmmaker because the road is anything but easy, however there are many treasures you will find on the way -you just have to wear the right goggles to see them.

Going to film-school, your rubric for tangible hands-on work is designed around the short film, or the short. The idea is that if you can make 5 minutes of film work, you can then begin to stretch those same fundamentals over 15min, 20min and beyond.  It gets very tricky when you decide to take the audacious jump into a 2hr project however, as oftentimes you calculate the work cumulatively, when in reality the work is multiplied exponentially and often requires a completely different skillset to accomplish. Even though my own experience wasn’t a gradual build up to my 1hr45min first feature- as I just plunged right in fresh out of my film program-  it doesn’t necessarily have to be gradual. It’s really a matter of the scope of what you can handle and how you envision the completeness of a given story/project. For instance, I personally was wired throughout my entire film education/work history to envision any given treatment as a full-length feature. I would say that is probably what intuitively we envision when we think of a film concept prior to the institutionalization of a film program. Before film school no one ever says, “I want to turn that idea into a good short” but after diving into the film rhetoric – that is really the common structure of thinking. Film-school, like any school needs to be taken with a grain of salt, or you may begin to condition your mind to a set of rules rather than seeing it as building blocks to build it your own way.

Film at its core musn’t be mistaken for anything other than Art regardless of what an industry utilizes it for, and any school of art cannot be definitive, as art is not a technical or scientifically driven subject matter. During the filming of my first feature “MOZLYM“, I was surprised to find that Leo Tolstoy, Aristotle, and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi were more of a help to me than SydField or Tarantino. The exception would be film theorists such as Eisenstien or Bazin, who were more great thinkers and artists than craftsman. As a filmmaker/director/writer, you’re charged with understanding this film experience from a broader level than just mere craft, because oftentimes no one else is going to do the critical thinking for you until after your work is printed, and it is unavailing at that point. Filmmaking itself needs to be stripped from its formalities in order to discover the truths to it. You have to look at the entire human experience attached to the film-both in making and spectating. You have to take into account the affects on psychology, morality, ambiguity/liability of messages, consciousness and subconsciousness, the list goes on and on. As horror director David Kronenburg put it; a  filmmaker is closest in trade to a that of a scientist; they are both using technology to create something that doesn’t exist except in their mind and oftentimes are the only ones who really believe in it.

My own journey towards making my first feature was really following a complete state of intuition. And to touch on that; sometimes we fail to remember the miraculous concept of man’s ability to create. To just stop and think about the invention of something like the cell phone, which connects people across the world in real time on a free-floating device  no bigger than a kit kat bar – it’s mind boggling. An invention like that is something important for us to keep cross-analyzing or we will take it for granted-if that has not already happened. Imagination is a powerful thing. I will never forget on the first day of auditions, when I watched actors pick up a script I had written from nothing other than the platform of my own mind, and they began to act/manifest them into reality. My initial reaction was like that of a child making a concoction from his toys and watching it come alive, or to that of a half-crazed scientist who gave life to a corpse with lightning – I started laughing hysterically. It was unreal, and the fact of the matter was that I couldn’t stop. Eventually, I snapped out of it and wore my director’s hat of scrutiny until the project was finished. But it was at that initial point that I came to a realization; that everything I had studied in film-school almost became secondary to the intuitive realm of the creative process. The human effort superseded the artwork, and that was the essence of this artform en pleine forme- that human beings were working together tirelessly in order to bring an idea from my mind into reality. And the first thing that drilled its way to the top of my mind through all the layers of film in my conscious was responsibility.  It was what undoubtedly went through Dr. Frankenstein’s mind after the initial rush of watching his experiment come alive – what have I really gotten myself into?

It hit me all of a sudden that hundreds-if not thousands of man hours of work may be shared between all of us to make this project. Time was at stake, and not just my own anymore. This caused me to become incredibly critical of everything associated to the project, exhausting myself and burning countless hours of midnight oil to make this worthwhile for everyone. I reread my script and concept countlessly, which fortunately led to major revisions, changes in plot, and removal of erroneous content. I didn’t see my imagination as a be all, end all – the way film-school encouraged, but rather as a starting point that needed to be good enough for my cast and crew to wholeheartedly believe in as well. Which brings me to my next point –  energy.

One cannot really explain what it is that makes one team with equal talent to the opposing team play a disastrous or epic game against their opponent. But if I had to guess; it would definitely be based on unseen and incalculable aspects. Like in all group activity, morale and cohesive energy is vital to productivity. As a filmmaker, one of your top priorities even before the technical stuff, is finding or creating that balance between your group of cast and crew. If that exists, it will be your invisible hammock that will carry you when you’re exhausted after 14hours of filming. The greatest part about that is that it’s not contingent to a budget or skillset, it is something that can be created through empathy, sincerity, integrity, morality, and even humor. Know what your cast and crew is feeling before they ask you, and they will travel to the ends of the earth with you. Ignoring the human element or dignity of any person on set will leave you stranded and alone no matter how large their compensation is. And for indie filmmakers such as myself, the human engagement is the only currency you can really pay them, so don’t undermine it regardless of how many hollywood directors you see biting a cigar and yelling at their gaffers. Believe me, I’ve met my fair share of people who’ve worked with the best of the best – so to speak, and after the project didn’t want anything to do with them.

Even though I went through a bonafide independent film process, I personally experienced no different than the hollywood artist/industry complex within the same project – the disconnect between creativity and business. As bizarre as that may sound, it carried the same symptoms of the internal dramas notoriously attributed to the large production houses. At some points even, my worst fears would come true when the executive order was in complete opposition to the spirit of the film. I felt Coppola’s pain during the making of The Godfather, and had to compromise a lot just to keep an equilibrium on set and maintain composure for everyone else. It hit me afterwards that my experience wasn’t exclusive to just me, when I sought advice from other filmmakers including the greats. It’s the trenches -that any uncompromising and ambitious artist must serve in order to refine them for the field and industry they are in. I know my experience so far is just he tip of the iceberg, however I can say I am definitely more prepared for what is to come because of it. In these matters, the tidbits of perseverance you learned in your childhood and schooling are much needed to survive. That bit of stubbornness you had with your siblings in grade school can now aid you to finish the shot on a given shooting day under the worst conditions. Perseverance is a form of patience, and patience is the bread and butter of any successful manager or director. If you have a short fuse or shallow threshold for inconvenience – you’re going to have a difficult time being a filmmaker. When making a feature, you have to be prepared for chaos, and find your zen in the eye of that storm.

Upon finishing MOZLYM, even though the film still doesn’t have distribution, we were blessed to have it decorated in film festivals internationally and given recognition. It made the entire journey worthwhile for not only myself but for cast, crew, and execs. When I watched a packed house theater in Cairo wiping tears from their eyes during the dramatic sequences of what we made in San Diego, California on a starving micro-budget  – I knew all the time that was donated to this was not a mistake. It reconfirmed many people’s hope in themselves, and what’s even more beautiful; it made our dreams become a tangible goal to achieve. However it wasn’t necessarily the acclaim that made the film worthwhile – contrary to what one may presume success is. It was that each of us somehow deep down knew that the film served to benefit the audience in some form, and that it wasn’t just entertainment driven.  That is why indies will always be sought after by the conscious audience; when there is lack of access to cosmetics, you have to supplement with substance. Ironically, that in itself is where the platform of your work should be based regardless, but the Hollywood dream is a tough thing to shake, especially when it was likely a Hollywood film that inspired you to make films in the first place. But fret not, it’s part of maturing as an artist, and you are better off because of it.

The filmmaking process is different for every person, so rather than pulling you through memory lane, I will sum up the process itself by saying it is a lot like a healthy pregnancy – lots of weight to carry, a true test of your limits of tolerance, most painful near the end, but immediately rewarding once finished.  When all the dust settled with MOZLYM, and the hype passed over the film (as it does all things) I slowly began to collect the entire experience and began critiquing- not only the film and crude attempt of filmmaking itself – but what the experience/product is worth and if I was satisfied with it. I can honestly say, I truly believe my first feature was THE most important experience for me as a developing artist, in that it taught me more lessons than any film school could have and reprogrammed me to see through  film -as an art  rather than a craft. Art as a responsibility  as much as it is a liberty.

To conclude, think of filmmaking similar to that of being behind the wheel of a very powerful car; you will inevitably gather the interest of passengers but no matter how much you take them for a spin and give their emotions a run for their money, you must drop them off at a destination point in the end. If that destination point is somewhere you find suitable for your conscious to bask in and a better place than where you picked them up from, then I implore you to continue your journey into the world of cinema- undeniably the most influential medium of our age.