Are you meant to be a filmmaker?

Being a filmmaker, I’ve met many others over the years and it gets easier to tell those involved in it for the right reasons and those who are not.

Hoping for fame or fortune when becoming screenwriters, directors, actors etc. is a fair goal and aspiration and in truth, all of the above roles are about trying to build a career out of telling stories – which means making money by default. It’s the kind of job where success in these fields means fame and fortune are sometimes within reach. However, that shouldn’t be why we do it – the operative words here being DO IT. I believe if you’re meant to be a filmmaker, then you’ll just do it.

I often come up against people that take issue with my more commercial tastes and sensibilities but the truth is, every film I loved most as a child was essentially a genre film or family film with meaning or heart. That’s why they became commercial hits, not because they were commercial films by definition. These days, the same kind of films feel so focus-grouped that they manage to filter out the meaning behind the story and the reason people were passionate about telling that story. The very essence of what made a story great to begin with is sometimes absent altogether, as was the case with Zack Snyder’s take on “Man of Steel” which wasn’t a Superman movie at all. Oftentimes, this problem stems from filmmakers not involved for the right reasons or not having an authentic passion for telling a story and audiences today have a laser-like instinct for it.

jpspielbergMaking a feature film is a huge undertaking and isn’t necessarily something everyone should go ahead and do, especially not without some filmmaking in other less risky mediums like shorts, web series etc. first. Building an audience who will anticipate that film’s release and being realistic about the potential audience for a film from the outset is vital, many an indie feature film with unknown cast has been made and failed to make a return or launch the careers of its makers this way. There are of course exceptions, but I highly suspect the reason the first “Paranormal Activity” did well and found an audience was because it was made for a low impact amount, had the viral marketing spend behind it and a great endorsement by a star director in Steven Spielberg calling it one of the scariest films he’d ever seen. That sells itself even if the film isn’t even any good (I still haven’t seen “Paranormal Activity” myself so that’s not a comment on that film’s merits).

The question I ask people who say they are filmmakers when I meet them is where I can see their work. The question I ask a screenwriter when I meet them is how many completed scripts they’ve written and if it’s just one, if they’ve shown it to someone who isn’t a family member or friend. The question I ask someone who says they’re an actor, is if they’ve done any shorts or if they’re doing any shows that I can come and see them in.

I don’t ask this because I expect the quality of a film, script or performance to be top-notch, I ask it because I want to know if they’re serious. I ask it because I want to know if they are putting themselves out there and allowing themselves to be open and vulnerable to risk. I ask it because I want to know if they are waiting for permission or if they are simply just doing it.

To survive the amount of rejection, insecurity and self-doubt that will inevitably creep in along the way, there has to be something bigger than fame or fortune driving you and to stop you giving up when all hope is lost and it seems too hard, like it’ll never happen. It’s that fire in your belly, that passion and urge for telling stories. That longing in your heart that most people get when they’ve fallen in love with the wrong person.

The great thing about that feeling when it’s related to writing, filmmaking, acting etc. is that other people can’t take it away from you. Someone might tell you that they don’t feel the same way about you, but a film will never do that – you’ll get back the love you put into it. Someone might tell you they aren’t interested in another date spent in your company, but a blank page will always welcome your words. Someone might tell you that you don’t look right or say they think you’re ugly, but that’s no reason to stop performing.

I believe that the only way you know you are a filmmaker, a writer, an actor or whatever you want to be in life comes from a feeling. A feeling that’s hard to put into words, but it’s sort of like feeling that you don’t really know how to do anything else.

That doesn’t mean it’s the only job you can physically do. I’ve worked in office jobs, in a cinema and in retail before, but I’ve always felt like I’ve been faking it, like I’m some kind of imposter hoping nobody will find out the truth. Strangely though, that’s sometimes how I feel on a film set when I’m the director and yet it’s accompanied by that other feeling at the same time.

That other feeling is that in some way, being there makes more sense. You suddenly find yourself able to get up at crazy times in the morning that otherwise wouldn’t be the case. You find yourself excited to go to work. Just as you may feel a little out of place on a film set, there’s something about it that makes you feel at home, like you belong there. Like this is what makes you come alive, somewhere in your body it is telling you that it just feels right.

I believe that if you’re meant to be a filmmaker, that feeling will lead you into a mindset where you just do it, and that’s because it’s not a choice. It’s not a short-term commitment or a quick-win game, filmmaking is going to take your life.

In the end, I believe you’re meant to be a filmmaker…if you can’t imagine not being one.

“My advice for aspiring actors is just, simply, to act.” ~ Sir Ian McKellen

“Ask yourself, what makes you come alive – and go do that.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

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About Chaz Harris

Chaz Harris is a writer and award-winning filmmaker based in Wellington, New Zealand.
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