[I originally wrote this in February while on a train to Paris...]
If you asked me if I would be here two years ago I would have laughed. If you asked me today if it was worth it, I wouldn't know.
A little over two years ago I was in pre-production on my thesis film, Cupid. At the time, preparations were going poorly and the script was mediocre in relation to my expectations. And the money available was... well, barely enough. In fact, we also didn't even have our lead actor till three days before filming was scheduled to begin. Disaster was looming around every corner... and I was expecting, in a sense, to get stabbed and mugged by The Film at any moment--- it murmuring into my ear, "Get down puppet!" right before running away with all of my money. I would then slowly die in some wet gutter... whispering, "why... why?" as some ill-timed crashing satellite would shoot across the night sky, giving me some false sense of a higher purpose for a second.
Moreover, I was conscious of the fact that I was choosing a story subject that wasn't necessarily the best topic for a short film: Cupid. It's practically a genre. Ripe with cliche and done a thousand times already, choosing this subject was already placing myself in an uphill battle. So why did I make that choice?
The reason I choose to go ahead with my particular take on the "Cupid" character as the subject of my thesis film was because this script (or my "interpretation" of the Cupid genre) was in fact the best canvas for showcasing my own character--- my personality ("style", "take", etc.) manifested on the screen. It was, in a sense, the best route for producing a calling card for myself as a film director. In other words, by choosing this Cupid script, I was, at the very least, going to get my filmic self on celluloid, for better or for worse.
And like any normal over-dramatic and insecure artist, I walked to the beach by myself during the middle of the night a couple days before we were scheduled to start shooting to "have a moment". Standing alone in the dark near the surf (under very expressionistic moonlight by the way) I thought, "This is a fucking retarded film, what am I doing? Who am I to think that I could actually make a good film?".
I then had another cliche thought, "I hope I have the strength to get through this".
For all you non-film people, let me explain something. No matter how good and/or talented the student production is, this is how the math usually works out: Student + Film = Some sort of Disaster. Even the best productions always have some sort of small crisis going on during the course of the shoot. In a sense student films are usually the summation of having insufficient funds mixed in with a group of insecure people that are still learning on the job... aka "disasters waiting to happen". "Professional" shoots also have problems, but realistically money solves a lot of problems.
It should be noted however that my thesis film went fairly well, thanks to an awesome cast and crew. However, true to form, we still had some small disasters among many: A shoot day was rained out for example (in LA, what!?!?), and a shooting location dropped out the day before. And... we had no funds to fix those problems. But in all fairness, these are normal disasters to have.
We finished the film in May of 2011. The whole process was emotionally, financially and physically taxing... and I wasn't even sure the film would play anywhere. I thought it might live and die on my shelf, the fate of so many student thesis films, let alone films in general.
I subsequently graduated from USC, was unemployed for a few months, and then finally found work. After 8 months I moved onto a better job. But those 8 months were a stern reality check: I was a film person with an advanced degree from one of the best film schools in the world... with a shitty job outlook.
A humbling situation.
Everyday I thought, "What crappy rabbit hole did I throw myself into?" Why couldn't I just grow up and face the reality that no student filmmaker wants to face: You are average. You are average in an industry that isn't.
But in January of 2012, "Cupid" premiered at the Clermont-Ferrand film festival in France, undoubtedly one of the biggest and most prestigious short film festivals in the world... At three-quarters full, our first screening in the 1400-seat theater drew laughs and applause. At that moment, I thought, "Oh, I guess I must have done something right...". We were only one of 5 American films selected in the International Competition, out of around 750 American films submitted this year. In fact, the International Competition took in only 77 out of around 5700-ish submitted in total. At that ridiculous statistical level, talent is not enough. I'm sure that there were countless deserving films that were rejected, many that might have even been "better" than my film. At this stratospheric level, luck is also involved. And we were damn fucking lucky.
At the festival we also received an offer for television distribution in Europe and Africa. In addition, months later, we also won a College Television Award (formerly "Student Emmys") for Comedy (2nd place). And hopefully Cupid will still play at a few more film festivals as the submission process is currently ongoing. I do acknowledge that the film has problems (it's a student film, duh)... but I guess people like it... the French apparently love it.
|Myself and the film's Producer Mallory Snyder|
Two years ago I was depressed and standing on the sand in the dark. Today I'm standing on a train on the way to Paris.
So what is the conclusion? Was it worth it career-wise? Making a thesis film? Shaving a few years off your life in the process?
I don't know. Yes, I managed to get a paid trip to France and my producer got a slick College Television Award statue. But career-wise I won't know the value of Cupid in the big picture until I'm able to look back years from now. Till I know where the chutes and ladders connect.
You can easily trash student films (and they usually deserve it), but always keep in mind there is some crazy student behind it, a person that tempts fate and laughs in the face of logic and reason. And what do most student filmmakers want? Fame, money? Well, some jackasses do. But most just want validation. Validation that they can entertain and inspire others. Validation that they can create something beautiful. Validation that they can discard a "normal" career in pursuit of an artistic endeavor where 99% of the people involved fail. Pretty stupid... and yet endearing. It's as simple as that.
I, in fact, happened to receive some sort of validation, some sort of hope that I am indeed not throwing my life away in pursuit of career pipe dreams. But I was only several degrees away from disaster, from not gaining validation as well. And it should be said that many talented people don't necessarily receive any kind of public validation as they deserve, sometimes due to reasons completely out of their control. I worked hard, don't get me wrong... but I also was very lucky as well. And I am thankful for that. Also thankful for all of the countless people that helped me along the way.
So was it worth it for me personally... emotionally?
Yes, I received validation. I gained perspective.
Either way, I have learned one very important thing while at film school: No matter how good or bad films are people should always respect and appreciate the work that goes into them. Someone behind that terrible film stuck their neck out and passionately made something that is going to be praised and/or ripped apart in the public discourse. They are in a sense, a human pinata... and the viewing public is the bat.
And I frankly doubt that many people in life have the balls to put themselves out there like that.
On the other hand, filmmakers are guilty of consciously choosing this treacherous career path and thus deserve to be hit for their arrogance.
So swing away... but please... always remember to swing with a smile.
So here is to the highs and the lows, and everything else in between. To every great film and also to every complete-piece-of-shit film. To everyone that tried.
I guess that in itself, in my opinion, is "worth it".
And to every person in pre-production for their student thesis film: Good luck... You'll be fine... And if not... well, there's always the beach.