Freedom and constraints

I.

Since I left Chicago in August, I’ve been living a somewhat nomadic life. I don’t have any long-term commitments and I have a remote job that I can do from anywhere with an internet connection.

And I love it. I love freedom. It feels amazing.

But there are pangs of something that I feel, a feeling I can’t quite describe, a feeling of wanting to be constrained. And I’ve been trying to wrestle with why I feel this way, of why despite enjoying traveling so much, I have an urge to restrict my freedom.

Here’s what I think: freedom induces anxiety because it raises choices and choices have existential implications. So when confronted with freedom, we (subconsciously) look for ways to eliminate it.

II.

What’s so great about a mortgage?

There are the obvious financial reasons and the ability to control your property. But I think there’s another psychological reason: a mortgage gives you an arbitrary goal, a way or ordering your life and making decisions.

The benefit of the mortgage is its long duration and high cost, which serve as both an organizing principle for life and a defense against the anxiety of freedom.

Want to take a new job? Well, sure, if I can still pay the mortgage.

Want to move? You can’t because you have this mortgage.

Of course people can sell their houses and move. The point isn’t that a mortgage ties you permanently to a place or situation, but that it alleviates the daily questioning of where you live.

It raises the threshold for considering a move — when you’re a nomad, you can move on any whim but when you have a mortgage, the threshold is much higher — you can move because you get a new job offer or to be closer to family or whatever, but you’re not just going to book a cheap fare to Buenos Aires and live there for a few months because you feel like it.

The defense against anxiety is key I think — life is much easier if you don’t question your purpose, if you have a shorthand rubric for every decision. Having children probably works in this way too, and I don’t mean to say that any of this is negative — people with children should probably organize their lives around the health and wellbeing of their children and if I have children I will almost certainly not be flying around the world on a whim.

III.

When I lived in Chicago and I was studying/practicing comedy, I had an organizing goal for my life: to get better at comedy, to get cast in shows, to be successful.

When I switched from theater to film, there was a similar organizing goal: to make films.

Insomuch as Chicago was the best place for me to do those things or provided the best opportunity to do those things, it was easy to stay in Chicago, even when I felt like leaving or the winters were long and freezing, or when I was just feeling wanderlust. Sure, I was unhappy at times (who isn’t?), but I had a reason to stay — to move on a whim would take me farther from my goals.

And whatever suffering I felt was easier to bear, knowing that it was in service of a longer-term goal. The structure was secure as long as I didn’t question the organizing goal for being in Chicago (studying comedy).

Once I quit performing, I went through a crisis where I had to question everything (and mourn the loss of a part of me) before settling on a new goal: making movies, which brought an organizing structure back to my life.

During the transition, I toyed with the idea of moving but it was clear that the network I had built in Chicago, combined with cheap rents, made it much easier to make movies in Chicago.

Once I made a feature film, the calculus changed. I no longer had an organizing reason for staying in Chicago. Yes, I still want to make feature films and yes, it’s still easier to do that in Chicago than it is in New York or wherever (because I have the local knowledge and contacts in Chicago and because rent is so damn cheap), but because I want to move up a budget level, the calculus is different.

The model of “work two years and save, then make an ultra-low-budget film” is not what I want anymore. Once I decided that the majority of the budget for my next project will come from investors, there’s no need to keep rent ultra-low to save as much as possible and high-rent cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are now viable places to live.

IV.

It makes sense that we would have defenses against constantly questioning our life situation. I mean, it’s probably not great to wake up every day of your life asking yourself the question “is this where I should live? is this the right career for me? is this my best life?”.

If you constantly question everything and never commit to anything, you’ll end up living in a kind of high-anxiety state of paralysis.

Completing meaningful, long-term projects like raising children or starting a company or creating a political movement or changing the culture — these all require a lot of commitment and a lot of saying no.

On the other hand, if you never question anything and just copy whatever your friends are doing, you’re liable to get stuck in a life that you don’t want.

So I think it’s safe to say that there’s an optimal mix of questioning vs. living, of commitment (and its attendant constraints) and reorganizing.

The trick I think, is to choose constraints and commitments consciously1, with regular checkpoints or a regular framework for question things and considering a reorganization of life.

For me, it seems to come about every ten years, but I wonder if I should be more deliberate in how I approach this whole question, by setting up an arbitrary time for questioning, like the last week of the year.


  1. Yes, I recognize that this is a massive luxury for privileged people 

Marketing indie films: marketing starts with the product

Epistemic status: These are UNTESTED and speculative assertions on my beliefs about how people choose what to watch, as I think through marketing my first feature film. Thoughtful feedback is welcome.Average films won’t break through.

You can’t out-average Netflix. They have a giant factory for making average films and TV that average people want.

The average person that is sitting at home with average wine mainlining average entertainment products into their eyeballs DOES NOT GIVE A FUCK about your indie movie, especially if it’s average.

So the product can’t be average. It has to be new or smart or different in some way so as to distinguish itself from the existing mass of movies. People who are looking for something new don’t want an average movie.

If you’re Hollywood, you can make a mediocre movie and spend $10-50 million marketing it and convince people to go to it (within limits of course).

Since you have almost no money for marketing, you cannot do this. The film itself must be compelling to generate word of mouth, to get people to share it with their friends.

Therefore, the your film must be remarkable in some way. It must be original or bold or daring or new, or it must have something to say about the culture (that isn’t being said elsewhere). It must be something that is hard to find elsewhere. It must be something that people will want to tell their friends about (see above).

Ideally, it will have some or all of the following:

  • Great writing.
  • Great story.
  • Great characters.
  • Something to say (about the culture or the world).
  • Saying it with style (voice).
  • Cinematography doesn’t matter, but images do.
  • Something new.

More on how to identify and reach an audience later. I invite you to contact me with thoughtful feedback or questions.

Marketing indie films: how do people choose which films to watch?

Epistemic status: These are UNTESTED and speculative assertions on my beliefs about how people choose what to watch, as I think through marketing my first feature film. Thoughtful feedback is welcome.

Most people want the average thing, they don’t want the new or good thing. If they want the new thing, it’s the average new thing, the kind of new thing they already like. They want a new flavor of Oreo, not a new paradigm for consuming flavor.

Most people have high opportunity costs when making entertainment decisions. Many alternatives exist: the known quantity sitcom that can be re-watched for the xth time, the new same safe content, video games, VR, sex1.

The algorithms will not save you.

Most people are not willing to make risky choices for high upside / high chance of failure entertainment decisions. These people, the masses, they’re not your market, ignore them completely.

Spontaneous discovery is almost impossible in a crowded field. Because of the higher time investment, it takes more work to overcome a potential movie viewer’s objections or resistance.

You need to target a smaller group of people. You can call them cinephiles or neophiles2.

People look for signals of quality in their buying/watching decisions:

  • Names involved (known actors or director). Occasionally a known distributor (A24).
  • Critical approval.
  • Festival/gatekeeper approval (must be a name-brand festival: Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Cannes, Tribeca, Berlin).
  • Word of mouth.
  • Distribution platform***

These are all signals that can convince the right person to watch a film, if you can get in front of them. Signals may increase reach but they are not guaranteed to increase reach.

Names are the most powerful and often enough to sell a movie internationally.

Critical approval provides social proof and aids in the purchase decision, but probably isn’t powerful enough to overcome a bad trailer. Critics are only influential with a small group of movie-watchers.

Critics only mean something if they have an audience OR they write for a publication with brand equity.

Critics with large podcast or online audiences can be influential. Local critics for small publications might look good on the poster but are unlikely to send a lot of people to your movie.

Word of mouth means hearing good things about a movie from friends or people on Twitter or other sources that you trust (with movie recommendations). Word of mouth is essential because it’s free.

What you want: people to watch your film and think “holy fuck, my friends need to see this.”

Even better: “holy fuck, MY ONE FRIEND WHO LIKES THIS SPECIFIC KIND OF THING NEEDS TO SEE THIS.”

If your film isn’t inspiring this kind of reaction, then either a) it’s not good enough to generate word of mouth or b) you’re not reaching the right people.

Word of mouth has to do with status and belonging.

When someone recommends something it can raise or lower their status. Recommendations have to do with taste and people who have taste in films recognize that their status is in play when they recommend something.

Word of mouth is also about belonging: people want to share cultural experiences with others. If your film makes people want to talk about the film, then your film will be better with others, i.e. more likely to be shared (“watch this so we can talk about it”).

If enough people within a subgroup are talking about something, a film can exponentially spread as everyone wants to be part of the conversation. When this happens on a nationwide level, you get Game of Thrones.

Focus on a small subgroup or subculture or a narrow audience band.

***Distribution. Distribution has lots of ***asterisks*** around it because it CAN be a signal of quality or it can be just a means of transmitting data. Filmmakers sometimes get confused and think that distribution is marketing and that’s why distribution is dangerous.

Most distributors do not do any marketing.

The distributors that do do marketing are not sitting around thinking about innovative ways to market your indie film. They are going through well-worn paths that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. They have a portfolio of films and they are playing the odds and hoping for a breakout.

That being said… A film landing on HBO is a signal of quality. A film landing on iTunes is not. Netflix is somewhere in the middle — it’s certainly prestigious but it’s not a guarantee that people will watch. The thing is, your microbudget indie isn’t getting onto a prestige platform unless it has a lot of the other quality signals already.

There’s another factor that’s a little different: genre.

Genre brings a set of expectations about the story/style/tone that certain audiences will immediately recognize and be interested in. Some neophiles are only looking for the new film within x genre (the new horror).

Horror is the genre with the most devoted and passionate fans and thus the easiest to work within. Pure drama (i.e. drama without any genre conventions) is the absolute hardest to market (even Hollywood has trouble doing it with huge names and huge budgets).3

Ideally, you would have all of these factors working in your favor.

I invite you to contact me with thoughtful feedback or questions.


  1. Just kidding, the only people who still have sex do it quickly to get it out of the way so they can go back to watching TV 

  2. Even these narrow bands should not be targeted en masse — the person looking for the new horror film is different from the one looking for the new comedy or doc, and even those genre-level bands are probably far too broad to target meaningfully. 

  3. Also, a lot of ‘dramas’ are quite boring and completely lacking in any actual theatrical drama. They’re just dramas in the sense that they’re not comedies or thrillers or whatever, and I’m sorry if you happen to spend 90 minutes with a dramaless ‘drama’ I feel your pain 

How much should indie films spend on marketing?

Most low-budget film producers, we typically reserve about $100 for marketing. In other words, whatever, if anything, is left over at the end.

It struck me the other day that a Hollywood film will probably spend 40-50% of the production budget on marketing.

So a $100 million movie will have $40-50 million spent on marketing. I don’t have actual figures so I might be well off but I think I’m in the ballpark there.

The equivalent would be a $100k indie film spending $40-50k on marketing. I don’t think anyone does that — maybe some distributors?

The marketing plan for most low-budget films seems to be:

  1. Get into a good festival
  2. Get a distributor
  3. Profit

The problem with this is that the distributor might not do any real marketing. They might not even know how to or they might just not care. We could argue about whether this is a good business strategy, but it’s almost certainly not a good strategy for the individual filmmaker.

The alternative, I think, is to do the marketing yourself. To figure out who will want to see your film and how to reach them and then how to create tension so that they want to pay money to watch your film.

I say “I think” because I haven’t done it yet, I haven’t tested it yet. I don’t know if it works. But I do know that spending a ton of money to reach a narrow audience is neither smart nor feasible.

So, how to spend $5k to get back $7.5k? And how to scale that to $50k or $100k?

If we can figure this out, we can make movies sustainably. We’ll see.

Transgressive behavior: when is it celebrated and when is it punished by power?

I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.

The answer is complicated and goes into the way sexuality and gender were viewed in the 1600s1, but this passage from Eva Mendieta’s In Search of Catalina de Erauso, highlights something interesting:

First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.

In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.

In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)

Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:

You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.

Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.

I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.


  1. See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. 

Do deepfakes ironically make blackmail harder?

What if the result of deepfakes is the opposite of what everyone expects? Like because it will be so easy to fake a video of someone, anyone can deny that any video is real.

Like there’s this article worrying about how a foreign intelligence officer could blackmail a diplomat with a deepfake video of the diplomat having an affair with not his wife.

But now, because of this technology’s prevalence, does it make it harder to blackmail someone?

Let’s say the diplomat did have an affair with not his wife. And then a video of it surfaces. Can’t he just say that it’s a deepfake?

What is the threshold for believing something now?

You get nothing but the wider world

I went to the El Caserio Museo Igartubeiti yesterday in Gipuzcoa, Spain, as I traverse the Basque Country in Spain and France doing some exploratory research for a screenplay.

In much of my reading and research, people have noted that the Basques have always been adventurers and explorers — they’ve fanned out around the world and were eager to move to the Americas and the US.

I’ve been wondering about why this is, I mean why would some cultures be more eager to move thousands of miles away from home — it’s hard enough now, but imagine doing that in 1620 when you had never been on a boat (if you lived inland, many Basques were incredible sailors and shipbuilders) and maybe had never even seen the sea and certainly hadn’t been on a long boat voyage or seen any other country or culture apart from your own.

You’d have to be pretty… crazy. Or brave. Or, maybe it was because of their inheritance laws!

I found out that they had a system where the oldest son (or daughter! imagine that!) received the majority of the inheritance. For a non-wealthy family, that would mean the land (e.g. el caserio).

So basically, one child gets the cider press and the surrounding land. The rest of the children get token items and some words of encouragement and they set off on their own, which would seem to encourage high-risk, adventurous travels and endeavors and Wiki agrees:

In contrast to surrounding regions, ancient Basque inheritance patterns, recognised in the fueros, favoured survival of the unity of inherited land holdings. In a kind of primogeniture, these usually were inherited by the eldest male or female child. As in other cultures, the fate of other family members depended on the assets of a family: wealthy Basque families tended to provide for all children in some way, while less-affluent families may have had only one asset to provide to one child.

However, this heir often provided for the rest of the family (unlike in England, with strict primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited everything and often did not provide for others).

Even though they were provided for in some way, younger siblings had to make much of their living by other means. Before the advent of industrialisation, this system resulted in the emigration of many rural Basques to Spain, France or the Americas.

Harsh by modern standards, this custom resulted in a great many enterprising figures of Basque origin who went into the world to earn their way, from Spanish conquistadors such as Lope de Aguirre and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, to explorers, missionaries and saints of the Catholic Church, such as Francis Xavier.

Interesting that the English had a similar system of inheritance and also a penchant for sailing around the world and mucking things up.

Despite your complete lack of distinguishing features, we have decided to hate you

The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:

Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.

Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.

They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.

They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).

So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.

The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.

Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!

“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”

The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.

Witch hunts

From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.

You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.

A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.

If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.

Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:

“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.

“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”

That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.

And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.

What is suspense?

Epistemic status: This is an attempt to write down what I think I know and understand about suspense — it’s a bit of a work in progress and I’ll update it as I think about it more. I’m writing it down and putting it out into the internet because it forces me to clarify and organize my thinking around this thing which I think is essential and yet often overlooked when it comes to how we talk about how to write.

For whatever reason, suspense seems to be thought of as a genre in of itself or a genre element reserved mainly for thrillers and mysteries.

For me, it’s an essential element of storytelling, something baked into the foundation of a good story — a prerequisite, a necessary condition.

Suspense is about keeping the reader wanting to keep on reading (or watching).

If boredom is the death of a story and interest is the opposite, then suspense is the emotional state of the interested reader or viewer.

Creating suspense means to put the audience in a suspended state, an incomplete state.

Human beings feel anxiety or tension when something is uncertain, undecided, or mysterious.

You can think of suspense as a kind of open loop. When you open the loop, the audience feels suspense that is not resolved until the loop is closed.

Suspense is an emotional state that can only be resolved by finding out what happens, by answering the question, by closing the loop.

Stories make a kind of promise.

When a loop is opened in a story, there’s an implicit promise that it will be closed by the end of the story. If you don’t close the loop, the audience will leave with unresolved tension, and possibly anger at being misled, or contempt at having the loop/promise closed in a way that is unsatisfying (deus ex machina or just shitty writing).

An unresolved loop can compel the audience to return next week (as in a cliffhanger) or just drive them nuts (as in an ending that doesn’t resolve enough).

Suspense is created by drawing the audience’s attention to something.

A woman looking at a tree feels nothing, but if you tell her that the tree could fall at any moment, she will be in a state of suspense: her mind will be focused on the possibility of the tree falling and the state will not be resolved until the tree falls or something happens to resolve her suspended state (e.g. convincing her that you were just kidding or that actually the tree won’t fall, of putting up a support to prevent the tree from falling).

To create suspense, you have to draw the audience’s attention to some uncertainty, mystery, or undecided outcome.

Two detectives looking at a dead body: one says that it’s on overdose. The other one says “no, I think it’s murder.”

Creating suspense similar to positioning in advertising or marketing, where you can change how someone feels about something just by pointing something out or posing them a question. Suspense has this in common with marketing: it’s about tension, tension that propels people towards action (buy this thing, keep reading, keep watching, etc.)

Sports have suspense built in naturally: who will win the game? Will the shot go into the goal?

But unlike stories, sports are only suspenseful in real time. If you know the outcome, watching a game is boring. How many people re-watch their favorite games vs. how many people re-watch their favorite movies?

[I’m still trying to figure out why stories are so different from sporting events when it comes to spoilers. People have been watching Hamlet for centuries and we all know what happens and how it happens, but there’s still something rewarding about going through it again.]

Sports are illustrative in another way: the uncertainty of an outcome isn’t enough to create suspense. You have to care who wins. The biggest, most improbably comeback in cricket is utterly boring to me. I can’t care about it, no matter how much I try. You couldn’t pay me to care about it.

So, stories need to open up a suspense loop, but they also need to make you care about what’s going to happen.

I think that people over-emphasize the role of character in how much we care. It’s not that character doesn’t matter, it’s just that it isn’t essential to creating a compelling story.

Certain story genres have suspense built in — mystery, thrillers, noirs. That’s why we associate suspense with those genres, but dramas and comedies and everything else need to keep the audience interested.

A body is found and the detective says it’s a murder but you don’t know who committed it.

But suspense isn’t confined to media — we use it all the time when we tell each other stories or gossip:

Someone says “did you hear about Jane?” or “did you hear about Jane’s relationship?” This can hook someone into a conversation or story much better than saying “Jane got divorced.”

A story about Jane’s divorce can have many suspense loops open.

The loops can be chained together or nested.

A chained loop goes like this:

  • Did you hear about Jane? [No, what happened?]
  • She got a divorce, but you won’t believe why. [Now I want to know why + the details].
  • Well it started when her husband found a box of fireworks in her garage. [Opens multiple new loops: why were there fireworks? Who put them there? How did her husband find them? How could this possibly lead to a divorce?]
  • And so on.

(a skilled storyteller brings a lot more than suspense — they omit superfluous details, they pace it well, they tell it with style, pick a good subject. etc.)

Some techniques for opening up a loop::

  • A question the audience wants answered (where’s he going, why is she in a hurry)
  • A puzzle.
  • A mystery.
  • Something unexplained (the ghost at the beginning of Hamlet).
  • An unexplained fact or phenomenon.
  • Any uncertain outcome.

A basic chain for a bank robbery story might look like this:

  1. Who is she?
  2. Why is she talking to this other woman?
  3. Why does she need to talk to her in private?
  4. Are they going to rob the bank?
  5. How are they going to get into the bank?
  6. How will they disable the security?
  7. How will they break into the vault?
  8. How will they get the money out?
  9. Will the police come?
  10. Will they escape the police?
  11. Will they get to keep the money?
  12. Will they still be friends after this?

Related: Editing and Forwards.





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