When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.
— Jerry Saltz in My Life As a Failed Artist
I think there’s a real dearth of “literature” about failed artists. One doesn’t have to look hard to find successful actors, artists, filmmakers, comedians, etc., talking about how they achieved success, often with an emphasis on the follow-your-dreams-and-never-give-up words of inspiration. I wish those talks were more clear about the specific mechanics of not giving up, in terms of what strategies the artists used to adjust to adversity and creatively overcome it.
Saltz had a very common experience — the self-doubt of an artist. But he wasn’t equipped with the tools or understanding to move forward with his work. And I think that’s what bothers me about the just-believe-in-yourself thinking. It’s unrealistic. Even wildly successful artists are plagued by self-doubt. The doubt doesn’t really have anything to do with the work — it’s just a feeling, not an output.
And it might even be harmful to completely believe in yourself. People who want very badly to be very good at something but feel like they are far away from being very good at that thing tend to work hard to get better so they can get closer to being very good.
The supremely confident person who isn’t already very good has no pathway to getting better except for dumb luck. Why try to improve when you already believe that you’re great?
I think the self-doubt, when channeled properly into improving oneself, is precisely what allows people to succeed if they have the right tools for managing that self-doubt and can channel it into improving their work and growing, rather than letting it cripple them or driving them to drink. Maybe if Saltz had someone in his life that could have talked him through this at the time and helped him focus his energy in the right place, he might have found a way to get through the dip and break through.
I try to frame it to myself as “given that I work really hard for a long time and challenge myself in ways that will lead to creative growth and improvement in my craft, I believe that I will get better and eventually create something that other people really want to watch.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful but I think it’s important to think through these things and figure out under what conditions a platitude might be true and under what conditions it might lead to the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.
Another thing I like about this article by Saltz is that we can also see that failure at one thing, while it can be crushing psychologically, is not the end. You can take what you learned as an artist and use it to become a good critic (I’m assuming he’s good, I have no way of knowing whether or not he is or not). There are probably a dozen other careers he could have transitioned to where his art background would have helped on some level.
I think we should be honest and admit that yes, dreams do fail, and not everyone is going to be a successful artist, no matter how much they believe that they will be. Some will fail for a lack of talent, some for a lack of willpower or hard work, and some because of the dumb fucking luck.
It’s important to talk about what happens when you fail and how to decide when it’s time to move on or when the failure is just one bump in a long road to success.
This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.
This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.
It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!
Disclaimer: Some of this information may have changed since last year and while I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work. Consult your SAG-AFTRA local for questions and guidance.
For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. ↩
I was going through my notes as I work on editing The Deadline and I found this quote:
In music, everything from a sonata to a symphony uses changes in tempo as a basic part of its form. Typically, a four-movement sonata will change not only its musical themes in each movement, but also its temo in each movement and sometimes even within each movement.
Similarly, if a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo that we feel, not the tempo itself.
Quoted from from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies.
I read this and thought about how I cut Words Fail Me and realized that I used jump cuts (LOTS OF JUMP CUTS) to speed things up and now I realize that by making (most of) the episodes move so quickly without changes in tempo, I was actually making it feel slower.
With The Deadline, I’ve been using tempo changes more effectively (I think) and taking Lumet’s advice in conjunction with Walter Murch’s advice to cut on changes in emotion/thought (and his Rule of Six), I’ve at least got a better approach to how I edit, as opposed to just winging it.
I like to get feedback on my work throughout the writing process, by doing readings (in front of audiences of other writers or live audiences, depending on what stage the script is in) and I started getting feedback on my rough cuts when I did Words Fail Me last year. Last weekend, I had six friends come over and we watched the latest version of the rough cut of The Deadline.
I prefer to do the screening in my apartment because then people will actually sit there and watch without distraction–it’s hard to sit through a short film when you’re home alone and your phone is beckoning to distract you (at least it is for me).
I thought it was going to take about an hour — 15 minutes to watch it and 45 minutes to discuss, but we ended up talking for about 2 hours. The feedback was really great and it allowed me to see things that were in front of me but had become invisible through repetition. And there were a couple of beats that I loved but everyone said that they should be cut. It’s heartbreaking because I really loved those parts, but they just didn’t work for the story.
And there were some notes that I will not be using. I think you shouldn’t take everything, otherwise people will feel too much responsibility when they give a note, because they know you will take it.
And sometimes there are secret reasons for doing something and you just have to trust your gut that they are for the best. Feedback should make the work stronger and make you a better editor. I wonder if mastery of editing would mean that your instincts are so refined that all feedback would be superflous.
Words Fail Me is officially done, released, and ended. There won’t be any more episodes, unless someone decides to give me some money to make them. I’m moving on to my next project, an absurd and comedic short film called The Deadline.
Thanks for watching Words Fail Me and please check out my new project!
I succumbed to Vimeo’s excellent display advertising and got a PRO account on Vimeo. I wanted to test it out to see how it works so when I do a feature I have a better idea of whether or not it makes sense as a place to self-distribute my film.
So, now to watch Words Fail Me on demand, at least for the time being, you have to buy it. But not really. I’m still giving it away for free if you sign up for my mailing list, which is on the sidebar of this blog. When you sign up, your welcome email will have a code to watch it for free.
I may take it off there after a few months depending on how the experiment goes.
More good news on the festival front!
We were accepted to the NYC Web Fest, which takes place November 13 & 14, 2015 in New York.
They haven’t released the schedule or the location details yet but you can get updates and check out the other great series on their website.
Awesome news! We were accepted as an official selection of the Brooklyn Web Fest. We will be screening episode 1 on Saturday, October 10 at 5pm, at DUMBO Made in NY Center by IFP, 30 John Street, Brooklyn NY 11202.
Robert will be speaking on a panel the same day at 4:30pm, on creating a meta web series.
I wrote up a series of blog posts on the writing, directing, and production process of my web series, Words Fail Me. You can find them individually on the site and I’ve assembled them all in one place here:
- Notes on Pre-production and Planning for a Web Series
- Notes on Directing for the First Time
- Notes on Directing Improvised Scenes (on camera)
- Notes on Soliciting and Interpreting Feedback on Videos (or other creative work)
- Notes on Editing Improvised Video Footage
- Exporting to ProRes from Adobe Premiere on PC