I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
Something different about Scotland, something that I really like: if you go to a restaurant and there are no open tables, they sometimes seat you with another group that has an open seat at their table. This happened to me for the second time this morning when I went for breakfast at The Larder for the big Scottish breakfast. I sat with an English family in town for their daughter’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. After some initial awkwardness, we talked about Il Duce, Brexit, American politics, tennis, and soccer/football (England is in the semi-finals).
I’m never quite sure what kind of cultural norms I’m supposed to follow in these situations, especially since they tend to be somewhat fluid in the U.S. Can I ask about work? Talk about work? We talked about politics right away, which gave me pause at first, because it can be so divisive in the U.S. I wonder if they sort of sensed based on my appearance that we were on the same wavelength? I always want to talk about these things because they interest me, especially when it’s with someone who has an outsider’s perspective, but I guess there’s also plenty of fun in the meta-conversation of how we’re dancing around this interaction between strangers.
Anyway, I just think it’s nice when semi-private spaces like restaurants create situations for meeting strangers, although I can see why some people wouldn’t like that. I imagine if annoying people kept sitting with me, that I would not like it.
They didn’t seem that interested in visiting the castle, which I thought, OK I’m not alone.
Back to being seated with strangers: I wonder if there’s just a politeness and trust to the culture here that makes this sort of thing more accepted? I went to fill up my rental car yesterday and I couldn’t find anywhere to pay for my gas at the pump. The sign said to pump first and then pay inside (!). I ran into the same thing in the highlands, but I assumed it was a rural custom. But this was in the heart of Edinburgh, a major city. I can’t imagine something like this in Chicago or New York or even the low-crime suburb in Maryland where I grew up.
Don’t people ever just drive away? I need to talk to someone about this before I leave.
I know the vacation is working because I feel the tug to get back home, to get back to routine, to work, to write every morning.
Here’s to the Scottish enlightenment:
I’m off to read on the Meadows.
I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast. It’s great, as usual.
I’m reading through Pmarca’s guide to career planning on this lazy Sunday back home. Excellent throughout and way too much to quote, but some bits that ring especially clear:
The second rule of career planning: Instead of planning your career, focus on developing skills and pursuing opportunities.
I’ll talk a lot about skills development in the next post. But for the rest of this post, I’m going to focus in on the nature of opportunities.
Opportunities are key. I would argue that opportunities fall loosely into two buckets: those that present themselves to you, and those that you go out and create. Both will be hugely important to your career.
Opportunities that present themselves to you are the consequence — at least partially — of being in the right place at the right time. They tend to present themselves when you’re not expecting it — and often when you are engaged in other activities that would seem to preclude you from pursuing them. And they come and go quickly — if you don’t jump all over an opportunity, someone else generally will and it will vanish.
I believe a huge part of what people would like to refer to as “career planning” is being continuously alert to opportunities that present themselves to you spontaneously, when you happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found.
Colin Powell says, “You know you’re a good leader when people follow you, if only out of curiosity.”
From the Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity:
Let’s start with a bang: don’t keep a schedule.
He’s crazy, you say!
I’m totally serious. If you pull it off — and in many structured jobs, you simply can’t — this simple tip alone can make a huge difference in productivity.
By not keeping a schedule, I mean: refuse to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day.
As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.
Want to spend all day writing a research report? Do it!
Want to spend all day coding? Do it!
Want to spend all day at the cafe down the street reading a book on personal productivity? Do it!
When someone emails or calls to say, “Let’s meet on Tuesday at 3”, the appropriate response is: “I’m not keeping a schedule for 2007, so I can’t commit to that, but give me a call on Tuesday at 2:45 and if I’m available, I’ll meet with you.”
Or, if it’s important, say, “You know what, let’s meet right now.”
Clearly this only works if you can get away with it. If you have a structured job, a structured job environment, or you’re a CEO, it will be hard to pull off.
But if you can do it, it’s really liberating, and will lead to far higher productivity than almost any other tactic you can try.
As of last week, I’m self-employed and doing a version of this, along with some strategies I’ve picked up from Deep Work. I love it. My dream isn’t to retire and live on a beach; it’s to have the freedom to work on what I want, when I want.
Something to think about whenever you hear a successful actor, filmmaker, whatever, talking about never give up and always follow your dreams, etc. I always thought that if a panel was going to have someone talking about how their hard work led to success, they should also be required to have 3 other panelists who worked equally hard and were still laboring in obscurity and never had the big day come (the seen vs. unseen).
There’s another way, where you find a way to be OK with your art/practice/whatever even if it doesn’t make you a lot of money. You can have a portfolio that leaves you exposed to high-upside payoffs without catastrophic downside (e.g. waiting tables at 60).
I’m cleaning out Evernote on this Labor Day and posting some stuff. I basically use this blog as an archive of the things that I’ve read or found that I want to remember later. So if it helps you, then bang on, as my English friend says.
Accidental Wes Anderson. People on Reddit post photos of real places that look like sets or frames from Wes Anderson movies.
Screenwriters: How Not to Get an Agent. Quotes excerpted from a great interview with an agent by John and Craig on an episode of Scriptnotes. This one really opened my eyes about the (lack of) value of 99% of screenwriting contests. Most of them are a way to make money for someone that can’t help you. Some of them have intangible benefits that might help you improve your writing but won’t help you get representation or sell a script.
How to Become Insanely Well-Connected. Good article on networking with practical and non-sleazy advice.
Art is fire plus algebra.
I found this quote in a book that wasn’t amazing but did have this quote, which is good.1
When I started writing feature screenplays, I was struck with how much engineering was in the work of crafting a story. Here’s how I think the drafting process breaks down, alternating between imagination and craft, fire and algebra, open mind vs editing mind.
First draft: fire
Rewriting: algebra + fire, depending on what’s going on. Usually mostly algebra unless I go too far in one direction and over-engineer things so I have to go back and find the thing that made me love it in the first place.
I wonder about the efficacy of quoting a great writer in an average book. A lot of times it just makes me realize that I’d rather be reading a better writer and I put the book down and find something better to read. ↩
Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!
What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.
I never thought about it this way, in terms of compound interest, but I have felt that there was an advantage to writing every day for an hour, that it was much more effective than writing only a couple times a week or just writing when “inspiration” (hah) strikes.
The hardest and in my opinion, most important, part of filmmaking is the script (improvised work aside), so it makes sense to me that that’s where you would want to focus your most precious energy and time, day in and day out, because that’s where the biggest returns will be. The ratio of (indie) films with good production value but poor writing to great scripts with poor production value is very high in my opinion. This seems somewhat backwards to me, as production value costs a lot of money but writing costs only time and most of us are broke or don’t have access to a lot of money, but we can all squeeze out an hour a day to write, if we look hard enough. Not that I’ve written anything great yet.
I found this Graham Green quote in one of Pauline Kael’s reviews in The Age of Movies, my first encounter with Kael after I stumbled upon it in Powell’s Books in Portland:
“The cinema,” Greene said, “has always developed by means of a certain low cunning…. We are driven back to the ‘blood,’ the thriller…. We have to… dive below the polite level, to something nearer to the common life…. And when we have attained to a a more popular drama, even if it is in the simplest terms of blood on a garage floor (‘There lay Duncan laced in his golden blood’), the scream of cars in flight, all the old excitements at their simplest and most sure-fire, then we can begin–secretly, with low cunning–to develop our poetic drama.”
Kael is a wonderful writer, one of the best non-fiction writers I’ve read, and I enjoy her writing even when she writes about movies that I haven’t seen or haven’t even heard of. Besides adding a long list of movies to my already long list of movies I need to see, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about filmmaking in the process.