It’s been about a month since I last posted, a much-needed sabbatical from writing as I collected my thoughts and dealt with the immense loss and change in my life. During that time I got a lot of letters from readers, many asking if I was okay, many telling me that they miss the posts. A lot of my readership are film students or students just coming out of school, and may of them ask me the same question: what’s the best advice you can give a beginning filmmaker?
I guess the entirety of this blog can be considered an answer to that question, and I’ve responded privately to as many questions as I can, because everyone’s situation differs.
But I have to admit that I don’t know all the answers. My own journey as a filmmaker is relatively young, and it would be a fallacy for me to say that I know everything. I don’t, and I’m still figuring things out as they happen to me. It’s been one of the driving forces of doing this blog in the first place , which was to share my experiences with both aspiring and working filmmakers so that we can all work together towards a few common goals.
And I want to talk about that in detail. Setting goals is important. Very important. Every dime-store self-help book will tell you that. It’s almost become a meme or a t-shirt. It’s too easy to say but exceptionally difficult to follow up on. What often makes them difficult is the scale of the goal and the vague nature of them.
I want to make films, amazing films, for the rest of my life. That’s a goal, no doubt. But when I say something like that, where do I go from there? It’s such a massive and ambiguous goal that there’s no starting point, and the end point is something that is a declaration of the obvious. It’s hollow and lacking in purpose, more of a label than a goal. Of course we all want to make movies, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. That’s a given, a declaration of intent more than a goal.
When it comes to setting goals, there are three very important things to remember:
1) Be specific. Your goal is not to be a filmmaker or make a movie. That’s your objective. Your goals are milestones that will get you to that objective. In order to set specific and realistic milestone goals, you must first understand the milestones that need to be achieved. Which is where blogs like this one or other resources online and in print are your best friend. Develop your filmmaking literacy and education, and ingrain in your brain all the necessary steps, in vivid detail, that are needed to make a film.
This is the best time to be humble about your abilities. Rather than set a goal of “Write a screenplay,” which again is a vague objective and not a goal, instead assess your abilities and set goals that will empower you to write a great screenplay. Writing consistently begets greater writing, so set a goal to write five pages a day, everyday, for the next two years. Understand that your writing doesn’t even need to be germane to your film career, you just need to write. Set smaller goals to improve your writing, such as taking a class and refreshing your grammar skills. Set a goal to read 20 books a year and facilitate this by joining a reading group that will force you to stick to your goal. Before I got derailed by my emotional personal losses this year, I was doing pretty well with my New Year’s resolution to watch three films a week, and by forcing myself to write about the films each week, i made sure I did it.
Filmmaking is a series of highly detailed and labor intensive steps - more so than a majority of professions - and to engage in it with little to no knowledge is asking for confusion and stasis. Being a great director doesn’t mean being good at one thing, you have to be the best at everything. That’s a bold statement but it’s what I believe, and my goals are built around that statement. I’m constantly in the process of learning and refining, relearning and recalibrating, and I set specific goals to facilitate those objective. I take night classes at my local universities and libraries. I take online courses. I read the newest film books and even revised editions of classic books. I’m a student all the time. When I keep gathering information, my path reveals itself.
In this past year I’ve learned so much about film finance and the business of film that it’s changed how I approach my pitches and business plans. It gives me direction and daily objectives, and there isn’t a single day where I have no idea what I’m going to do today. Ten years ago I had plenty of days where I had no idea what I was going to do - I’d set a goal to write a screenplay and instead I spent most of the day watching television, surfing the web, and waiting for some kind of miracle to happen. I wasn’t working toward anything because I literally had no idea where to start or how to get there. Be specific with your goals and you’ll create daily work, work that will get you to your larger objectives.
2) Give your goals a date. I can say “I’m going to write a screenplay,” and that could take anywhere from a week to five hundred weeks. It’s an open-ended goal, and because it lacks a clear start and finish date, it has no sense of urgency or initiative. Give your goals specific dates. Take a grammar class on January 4th through March 4th. Write your treatment, which needs to be completed by April 1st. Your first draft needs to be completed by June 1st. Buy a paper planner - not your iPhone - and write all your dates down. It has to be something you can see, every day, in front of your face.
Putting dates in front of your goals translates them from mere dreams into actionable ideas. The importance of this cannot be understated. Without a date you will be meandering, and all of our propensity to get lost or distracted will be enabled in full force. Setting dates is the core of establishing your discipline, which leads into the final point-
3) Set a routine. Paul Pope sent me a text a few weeks ago telling me about Jean-Paul Sartre’s daily routine. According to Paul, Sartre’s diet over 24 hours included “two packs of cigarettes and several pipes of of black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol, 200 grams of amphetamines, 15 grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, and rich meals.” I responded stating “no wonder he was existential!”
Nerd humor aside, Paul and I addressed our need to create more rigid daily routines. Of course none of it involves mind-altering narcotics, but it means we need to set daily goals that need to be achieved consistently for the rest of our lives. This includes waking up early (or earlier), eating three healthy square meals, exercise, starting our creative work by a specific time, and working until closing time. I have to admit this is easier to write than do, and I’m still working on it. But it helps so very much in keeping with our long term goals. It’s basically organizing our day to achieve whatever we want. It’s difficult to do specific tasks when you have no order and your life is a shambolic mess. Straighten things out, get into a daily routine to start your day and maintain your workflow, and you’ll find that you can be immensely productive in executing your goals. Clutter is your enemy. Not saying you can always avoid clutter - it happens to all of us - but do everything in your power to create order and organization in your life. The key to that is your daily routine.
The misnomer of adhering to a daily routine is that it makes your life boring and predicable. Far from it, just ask the ghost of Sartre. You’re simply taking a few hours to prepare yourself for daily exploration, and to go into the great unknown without any preparation is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Prepare, prepare, prepare. It doesn’t mean be a perfectionist, because as Michael Mann famously stated, perfectionism is the inability to differentiate between what is important and what is trivial. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but stick to your routine. Your routine will allow you to get to the small stuff in a manner that won’t drive you to insanity. And when you’re doing that, you’re making your goals into reality.
This is a lot to chew on, and what it requires most is your commitment. There’s no amount of preaching or teaching that will make you get up and do all of the aforementioned. That has to come from you, and you alone. You can’t become a filmmaker if you don’t do the work it requires, and that applies to just about anything. Life doesn’t come to you, you have to go and make it happen. Fail to do that and you won’t even make it out of bed. Show no effort and your friends and family will continue to question your career choice. Show no initiative and you’ll be letting yourself down. Be more than just talk, show your efforts through action. Actively work, push yourself, discipline yourself, and immerse yourself in the greatest and more fun, fulfilling profession in the history of the world. There is no greater privilege than being a working artist, and it is a title earned through back-breaking work and commitment. Set your goals, work towards them, and once you achieve them reset your goals to even higher and grander scales. There is no limit to your ambition, but you must walk before you run!