The Importance of Desperation During The Creative Process
I recently directed a play, “Baal” written by Bertolt Brecht and adapted by Peter Mellencamp, for the awesome and trusting Sacred Fools Theater Company in Hollywood. It was Brecht’s first play, written when he was only twenty years old. Showing the promise that Brecht would deliver throughout his career, the script is brilliant, dark, complex and nearly impossible to execute. It’s terrifying to stage for everyone involved, as there are a thousand ways to fail or just suck at this show, and then we all look like pretentious assholes for trying. And on a personal note, Brecht is a bit above my pay grade as a director. And I’m not being falsely modest here – Brecht is one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, whose work is known for a specific style and effect on the audience and an army of people who know how his work is supposed to be done, and when I started down this path I had never worked on a Brecht play and had only seen one produced. I often found myself wondering “are we doing this right?” A lifetime of theater experience had barely prepared me.
So about two weeks before we opened, I was having a rushed lunch with our Interactive Video Producer Zubi Mohammed. We were discussing the challenges, the process, dealing with all the nudity, etc. And the idea of “happiness” in creativity came up. There’s a point in the creative process when everyone’s happy and high on the idea, and I think that’s before everyone knows the cost a show will render on their psyche over the course of production. In the last two weeks they honeymoon is over and forgotten, an impossible amount of work gets done. A play goes from being a collection of scenes and missteps and gels into a show. How good of a show is always down to the talent, vision, and stamina of the creative team during the home stretch. Generally, I’m up late working, then up again early in the morning doing more work. I’m forgetting to eat, or am eating only crap, handling a multitude of impossible-to-know-if-I’m-right last-minute choices, and frankly I smell.
And while in the middle of all that, I said to Zubi through a glaze of flop-sweat, “to love directing is to love this feeling. To want to put one’s self through this.” I giggled, nervously, then went back to trying to astrally project myself two weeks into the future when everything was already done and I could sleep.
Even though I was worn down to the nub, that thought stuck with me. Tackling difficult or seemingly-impossible projects, having some degree of success or failure, and honestly evaluating one’s abilities based on the creative bellyflop are some of the reasons I love directing theater and often chastise myself for not doing it more often. And the whole point of the exercise is to learn and grow, necessarily stepping out of my comfort zone every time, hopefully to better my craft.
But the act of doing so comes with the uncertainty of doing something for the first time – an open invitation to failure and I’m not too proud to admit that I’m afraid to suck. To be either too far out on a creative limb or too safe. So back we go to this feeling, in a place where the only way to dig one’s self out is through active and final choice-making. Rubber, meet road, and no backsies.
Process vs. Product
When a creative type is hired to do a job like direct a commercial or paint a mural or whatever, there’s a sense going in that the employer should be able to expect a product from the artist. If I hire you to build a table, I assume you won’t deliver a sculpture of how a table makes you feel. I want to eat breakfast on it, not consider my mortality or your table-ness. But when we get into issues that involve telling a story, absolute certitude becomes fuzzier and often the best way to tell a given story involves letting it veer slightly off course. And that’s where we get into the battle between product or process-oriented thinking. In other words, if I focus completely on delivering the product in the most predictable way, there’s a good chance it will feel stale and empty, like your dad telling you the same story he’s told you since you were four and you already know how it ends but you have to let him go through the motions. And if you let the process act like a ouija board and guide you to a purely artistic truth, the end product may resonate for you and nobody else. So what I love (and dread) about theater is it allows the artists involved to split the difference a little, even favoring the process-oriented approach because it’s better for theater to feel inscrutable than stale.
And there’s a tradeoff. Process-oriented thinking comes with an inherent risk in the execution, and product-oriented thinking comes with possibly-false confidence. The product-oriented craftsperson can turn off their brain while creating, because it’s all already been done, Hitchcock-style, in their office months ago and it will work (unless you happen to not be Alfred Hitchcock). Every artist knows that if they’re lucky enough to make enough stuff to have a body of work, some of it will inevitably suck, and there’s no getting away from that. And for theater or film directing “process” can open too many doors, take the project down too many roads that end nowhere, and waste precious time.
And although it would seem that “process” thinking has to die eventually, lest we be in a perpetual state of preproduction, it’s possible to use process-oriented thinking right down to the end. The difference, for the creator, lies in knowing ahead of time what everything’s supposed to look like and working backward toward that goal (product), or knowing more-or-less where one thinks the thing should be, and working forward until the process creates a falsehood that needs to be troubleshot before further progress can be made (process). And this, again, leads to the inevitable malaise. But where does it start?
The Point of No Return
“I’ll do it!” are the three words I often look back on and question during those late nights when sleep will come only after a “to-do” list is more exhausted than I am, and the new one for the next day hasn’t blossomed yet like the flower on a weed with roots too deep to be pulled out of my brain (yes, there are weeds growing in my brain). If only I hadn’t said those three words, I’d be… Well, I’d be sitting around pissed off that I wasn’t doing anything right now, but I wouldn’t be on the business end of a mountain wondering how to get my steamboat over it. And it’s not that I didn’t want to do the job, stage the show, or whatever – I truly love to work. I just hate to fail, and like I said, each job is an opportunity to fail. The specter of failure hangs over me, wakes me up in the morning, and hopefully keeps me focused. But it’s not pleasant.
After the point of no return, there’s no other project that will monopolize your attentions for the life of the project which could be anywhere from a few hours to a few years. When I find myself having crossed this threshold (as I never seem to realize the moment when I’m crossing it), I often ask myself why I’m doing whateverthefuck it is. If the answer is “for the money,” the project had better be short-term or pay very well. And if it doesn’t pay well (or at all), there’s always the fear of getting paid work while embroiled in the process. And since few projects are the perfect marriage of commitment, pay, and interest, learning not to cross this line precipitously is a skill that most creatives are forced develop, possibly to the exclusion of work that would enrich them. How many people won’t do whatever it is that they do for free?
The Heavy Lifting
For me, this is actually the easiest part. It’s doing the job. It’s transcribing the interview, building the rough cut, priming the canvas, blocking the show, shooting the scenes. The anxiety goes away because there’s no time to think about it. And for the most part, it’s much easier and more free than thinking about it was just days earlier. This is where all the preparation mattered.
I remember the first day I directed something for money. I had been a wreck during the entire prep process, about three unkind words away from a bell-tower and a rifle (let’s be honest, a fetal position). And then the first day of the shoot arrived – the day I’d been dreading all along. We were actually filming at a closed lunatic asylum in Camarillo, CA (the irony of that lost on me at the time), and I drove out to the set full of fear, dread, and a deep and abiding hatred for myself having crossed the point of no return some weeks earlier.
I arrived at the set, parked my car, walked up to the first setup, and the fear and doubt evaporated. I knew exactly what I was there to do and how to do it. And what I didn’t know, I had plenty of well-meaning people around me on the crew who were all more than happy to step up for the sake of the project.
There’s something comforting about just doing the damn job, seeing if it’s working. There’s no time to dick around or second-guess our decisions, we just do. The malaise lifts, we get some yuks in, and actually separate from the task at hand for a while the same way I don’t think about mowing my lawn while I’m doing it. The most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on were all ones where the lion’s share of time is spent on the heavy lifting, less time on the ramp up. Maybe that’s the lesson that Instant Films teaches so well.
Letting Go of Preciousness
And then, like Keyser Söze blending into a crowd and ducking into Pete Postlelthwaite’s car, it’s gone. The object of obsession is released into the world, delivered to the client, or opened for a paying audience and no matter how tempted I am to dick around with it at that point, I don’t. I can’t. In every other case, it’s physically impossible – after all, I can’t pull copies of “Alien Raiders” off the shelf and swap them out with a re-edited version. Whatever I did will remain forever a snapshot of my abilities and resources at that time.
And one idea that continues to impress itself on me is that we’re in a volume business. We do a lot of work. To paraphrase Steven Soderbergh, ideas – even great ones – are a dime a dozen and we have to follow some false leads, even to conclusions, before we know if we’ve got dynamite or a dud on our hands. And some of them are GOING to suck (and have sucked, doubtlessly), and for me, the misery is what keeps it in check, keeps me honest, reminds me that anything can take a turn for the suckier at any moment, so it’s best to stay on one’s toes.
So although it’s hard to grow happy with one’s misery, I’ve learned to grow comfortable with it as my creative passenger or even co-pilot. Maybe one day I’ll look for its guidance and it will be gone, and I won’t know what to do without it.
By the way, I’d like to thank John Sylvain for founding both Sacred Fools and Instant Films, two of the best ways I know how to get my creative on in LA.