NOTES FROM THE WEST: Vancity to LA

A quick look at the future far from home.

I recently traveled relatively far from the Michigan homeland of Ann Arbor — first I visited Vancouver, BC for the Vancouver International Film Festival and then continued on to Los Angeles for four days. While most of the trip was social and vacation-like, it was all nonetheless embedded in the context of filmmaking and my future career plans. Zug played at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 1 and 4, and the next week I was on to Los Angeles to pay my old Disney friends and coworkers a quick visit.

I don’t get out of the house much (or at least out of Ann Arbor). The occasional trip is, then, something I’m remarkably not used to — the combination of the comfort of home and the danger of peanut ingestion on the road often keeps me in a physical comfort zone where it’s incredibly easy to just be. When I get out, it’s a different enough experience that it inherently does a number of things to me. First, it makes me appreciate the awesome and generous place my hometown is; and second, it brings exciting new places and new ideas of what my future could realistically become.

ZUGGING

As Executive Producer for the short film Zug, I’ve been focused lately on our festival submissions, which are already numerous at this point. Vancouver was the first (and is to this date, the only) festival acceptance we’ve received.

We got to show the film twice, each time as part of a larger 99-minute block entitled “Teen Tales.” Somewhat belittling title aside, the block of six short films proved to be an enlightening look at what short films might have success on the festival circuit. The other films included in the block included Columbia MFA product and female wrestler story First Match (USA), the darkly comic Norwegian-language short Hourglass (Norway/Spain), the British soccer injury drama Run (UK), the Indian adolescent comedy Aashpordha (translation: Audacity, India), and the dark Australian junkyard short Yardbird (Australia).

These films, for the most part, were pretty good. Yet it was somehow hard to judge when they were positioned in such close proximity to our own film, which is automatically easier for me to relate to. The interesting thing about the block was the way in which the short films were each constructed. There is a limited amount of story that can be conveyed in 20 minutes, and while my understanding of good short films has always been that they are smaller stories with clear beginnings, ends, and arcs, the short films seen in Vancouver suggest a somewhat different structure. These short films start in the middle of a story and continue it through to a final point, but in many cases leave total arcs without a resolution. It seems as if, rather than being a self-contained narrative, the short film is a collected series of scenes that seek to prove the filmmakers’ handle on narrative style for a potential future in features. For someone who hasn’t exactly explored short films on a creative level as yet, it’s illuminating to see the different ways writers and directors both appreciate and use the short format. It’s also important to note what exactly people (and festival programmers) might expect from shorts, if I’m ever hoping to have success with them.

Watching Zug was a weird and challenging experience. I was happy enough to see how pristine our HDCAM tape print was when projected on the big screen. But judging the film as a work is obviously too subjective for me; there’s no way to come into a story or situation with an open mind when you partially created it. And the more you watch your own film, the more skewed your interpretation gets. So, to watch our film with people totally unconnected with the project is eye-opening. “Eye-opening” sounds positive, and in the grand scheme of life, it probably is. However, for a 21-minute film that is still hoping to get into a large number of festivals, it can lead to more moments of anxiousness and dread than satisfaction.

In our second showing, Zug played before a large audience of teens and Vancouver high school students, who were obviously forced to come to the showing as part of a field trip. In preparing for a screening, it’s hard to predict what moments in a film will get a good reception, but we hadn’t really prepared for the laughter, natural or uncomfortable, that would result from fairly benign moments throughout the film. With a young audience, laughter like that was amplified.

I later showed the film to an old friend of mine out in Los Angeles, who works in the industry and specializes in story development. His impressions were mixed: first, the film’s production values were impressive; second, the interview-style ending to the film didn’t work; and third, the characters weren’t all that interesting.

These first impressions from outsiders made me think twice about the film’s appeal to general audiences. Is the film well structured? Is its plot understandable? Will older audiences relate to our teenage characters?

Eventually I came upon a question that worried me not only for my involvement in the project but for my personal interest in its themes — is the film’s Detroit-based narrative actually interesting to outside audiences? And I mean in a positive, human, not abandoned-building-porn sort of way.

It’s possible people disconnected to Detroit don’t really get it. For a film that, in my opinion, really requires for you to get it to actually appreciate it, that might prove to be an immense and immensely expensive problem. But who knows, we’ll keep trying.

FILMBROS

I’m not shy about having shied away from much of the film student community while at the University of Michigan. Film, for me, is a personal thing, and one that I often prefer experiencing on my own. So, to talk about Tarantino and Kubrick and all the things that make films so interesting is an activity in which I’m rarely interested. Not to characterize all film students as self-important, over-the-top analytic and fake intellectual, but some of them are, and if you put five of them together their partial flaws can combine into something excruciating.

But I’ve grown to appreciate people’s opinions, even other film people’s — and more importantly, I’ve come to learn about the reasons why a certain person will form his or her opinions on film, and the influences that have molded their perceptions. And throughout that growth, the film people I’ve met — through my internship at Walt Disney Studios in Summer 2011 and my involvement with Zug — have somehow been refreshingly regular people.

Being in Vancouver with Zug‘s writer-director Perry and producer Tony was a new and great experience, as we got to figure out what exactly we might want with future careers in film. Putting those wants in relation to Zug, we realized how far we still have to go. And, for the first time in a while, I could see the logic and realism behind budding filmmakers’ ambitions.

In Los Angeles, I got to hang around with my old roommate Will, with whom I lived when we were both interning at Disney. His network of friends, all of whom seem to be involved in the film industry, was a new look at the reality of early 20-year-olds working in Los Angeles. Finding a job is sometimes a week-to-week thing, and other times, your day job might be your moneymaker now and your night job working on a short film might be your ticket to the future. My job plans for my move out to LA are up in the air, but the question of how to explore creative filmmaking while holding down a job is one I have yet to answer. My experiences in LA show me that it might be a grind, but that you should never stop working towards your actual goals.

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It’s a tough prospect that my career plans, since I have little experience, are pretty unmarketable. As in, nobody wants to pay for me to make films, exploring my creativity. It’s also hard to swallow that I’ll be probably be crawling through assistant jobs (if I can get an assistant job to start) at low pay before I can do something close to what I’ve ever imagined. And all this after an undergrad business curriculum, after which I’ve seen most of the fellow BBA classmates glide into 50-80K/year jobs right out of college. A film career is odd and foreign, just like California. I’ve never tried something so completely different from what I understand.

For the next years, I’m thinking $25 entrees (like the delicious truffle-sauce spaghetti & meatballs at Italian Kitchen in Vancouver) are probably off the table. Going to the bar is probably more Bud Lights and fewer craft beers. Or maybe it’s just cooking and drinking at home. Money is going to become a big problem, and I know it. I’m not used to living on a budget, or having to actually save up money. Living on a low wage with low expenses is just as foreign as the rest of it.

#aloneatacoffeeshop

I had a few chances to chill on my own at coffee shops in LA (Check out Fix in Echo Park), and it became clear pretty quickly that still wasn’t ready for the solitude that moving out there will probably bring. I know I’m not ready for the expanse and the traffic and the slow career. And I know I’m not ready for the responsibility.

But what worries me isn’t all that. It’s the fact that I’m probably not ready for the loneliness of following distant dreams.

I have a lot of friends in Ann Arbor, Seattle, Chicago. Some in New York. But very few in Los Angeles, and while making new friends is always a good thing, it’ll be difficult to distance myself so far from the friends that have come to be a home unto themselves.

At the same time, I feel a need to distance myself from the college life and work ethic I still seem to be carrying — a work ethic that is obviously based in a world where there is always something more interesting to do than my work. In college, to be honest, that was kind of true. Those same friends were my ever-present and welcome distraction from work, and I loved it.

But now I have an epic problem with task and project management. Maybe it’s a lack of direction and organization, but nothing seems to progress the way I plan it.

It’s a problem, and I realize it’s because I’ve been living in a half-world in which talking about doing something is enough to make myself believe I’m actually doing it. I can feel it when I sit down to do work and somehow feel like that is itself the accomplishment, regardless of whether work gets done. It’s when checking in on Foursquare at every interesting place I visit suddenly becomes the reason I go there at all, and the only reason I eat new foods and latte-art-adorned cappucinos and mochas is to tweet the pictures.

When everything in my life and career aspirations has changed to become rather apart from things concrete and real — then is a moment I can’t stand to face. My trip to the west, among other things, has done its job of keeping me wide awake and acutely focused on a different way of living.

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