As an artist, how do you know you will make something good?
That’s always the goal, isn’t it? To make something good—something that’s better than anything you’ve ever made before. Because if you’re actually good at whichever thing you’ve chosen to do with your life (in my case writing and directing movies), then that means you create good work. And if you create bad work…well, by that logic it must mean you’re bad at your chosen thing, right? That you’ve been lying to yourself, and you’ll never be good, and you’ve probably already ruined your life.
This is absolutely the wrong way to look at things, but it’s easy to buy into this narrative. Creativity is hard, and we live in a culture where success = good and failure = bad. It’s quite simple. And with creative work there’s no guide to follow or instruction manual to show you how to do it well. If all it took to write an amazing script was reading Robert McKee’s Story, there would be hundreds of thousands of amazing scripts floating around. But that is not the case.
Without a guide, you’re entirely on your own. It is solely your responsibility to create something entertaining, profitable, and original, and there seem to be an infinite number of challenges that can stop you dead in your tracks. Personally, my biggest challenge has been the arresting, crippling fear of making something bad. Somehow I’ve come to quietly embody the evil philosophy: “If I don’t try, then I can’t fail.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. The precise time that I went from confident, unstoppable artist to timid, play-it-safe, perpetually-aspiring filmmaker. I remember this painful experience all too well. And now, in all of my obsessing about this turning point, and all the over-examination of what went wrong, I’ve identified how to overcome this fear. How to unlock the creative potential that you stuff into a safe so it isn’t damaged. It’s simple, really, in retrospect. Obvious, even. But living the journey was a stressful, nerve-racking process.
In this week’s blog post I’d like to tell you a story. The story of a polite, shy, and somewhat arrogant young boy named Michael, who panicked when he realized he was one of those people that peak early.
I’ve been making movies since elementary school. I would take my dad’s video camera and just go crazy. I made anything from videos of my friends pretending to be Ninja Turtles (f*** you, Michael Bay), to crude claymation movies inspired by James and the Giant Peach. In middle school my parents bought me a digital editing program for our IBM PC and the quality of my videos went up drastically (I had pretty bad-ass VCR-to-VCR editing skills though). In high school I graduated to narratives, each one better and slightly more coherent than the last. The big achievement coming out of high school and going into college was a feature film I made called 421, which was when I really began to understand what actual filmmaking looked like.
I started watching R-rated movies like American Beauty and Fight Club at the end of high school (I was a very sheltered child). Among other things, I noticed that in dialogue scenes one character was usually framed on the left, and the other on the right. When I got to college at UCSC and learned that this was called the “180 degree rule,” I was very excited that I’d already figured it out myself. All this knowledge went into a horror film starring my high school english teacher. His students liked it enough that they wanted to buy copies (I sold 50 in total)! This upward trend of every movie being better than the last culminated in the first movie I made for a college film class, a short called (dik).
This was shortly after Eternal Sunshine had come out, and I’d just been exposed to my first Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Punch Drunk Love, which I immediately became obsessed with. Both of these films were huge stylistic influences, but beyond that they ignited a passion and a creativity that I’d never felt before. I harnessed that passion, and wrote a short film that was more raw and expressive than any I’d ever done. I tapped into my deepest insecurities and most painful emotions, and let it all spill out onto the page. And then I grabbed some friends and we filmed it–and it was one of those magic, effortless shoots where everything just seemed to go right. Every night when I looked at the footage, I was excited about the work we’d done. “I think this one might be special,” I told my roommate. And it was.
I was supremely proud of the finished product, but the most impactful part was how blown away everyone else was. Some friends cried when they watched it—I didn’t know I could do that! My college professor loved the movie and started showing it in other classes as an example of what a good project looks like. A classmate pulled me aside one day and thanked me(!) for making the movie. He said it had really spoken to him, and it helped him to know there were other people that felt the way he did. Here I was, in my first film class, and I was already pointed to as special.
And really, I wasn’t surprised (this is where the somewhat-arrogant part comes in—naïve maybe be a more accurate word now that I think about it). Nor were my close friends. I, after all, was the child prodigy whose newest movie was always better than the last. And my expectation was that it would be this way forever. This is not to say that I wasn’t humbled and deeply moved by the kind words people gave me, in fact this period of time was one of the most creatively rewarding of my life. And therein lies the problem. Because shortly after I made this film, I realized I was going to have to make another film that would top it. And when I tried, it sucked.
I remember the look of disappointment on people’s faces. The exact opposite reactions to (dik). Instead of ”Oh my god, that was amazing!”, I felt the sting as they politely said, “Yeah, it was…cool.” My mother literally said the words, “Well, it certainly wasn’t your best work.” This new film was my first attempt at making a classic black and white film noir, and I was eager for my dad to see it, knowing how much he loves film noir. The wound I suffered when he said, “Well, I guess black-and-white isn’t your thing,” has never healed.
This makes my parents sound really harsh, and they’re not–they’re amazing. They’ve always supported me 110%, bought me equipment, and, in my mom’s case, swallowed her disappointment when I didn’t want to become a doctor. My parents have always sworn to give me honest feedback which has been immensely helpful, and in this case they were right. The movie wasn’t good. I was devastated, and I became scared. And this fear grew to be the biggest enemy of my creative life.
So what happened?
So what happened? Why did I suddenly become terrible at making movies? Why did I feel like a genius before? There are two important elements that explain what happened, and when I finally identified them I felt a lot less crazy.
Up until that point, everything I made was good…for my age. Making a mostly-coherent feature film was an impressive feat…in high school. Writing a 20 minute narrative that makes loose sense is awesome…in junior high. Being able to shoot and edit anything at all is really special…when you’re 9. The bar was always set very low, so it was easy to soar past these expectations. With my youthful naïveté, the only conclusion I could arrive at was that I was special and infallible, and thus my identity welded itself firmly to the role of “person-who-always-makes-great-movies.” But once you’re in your 20s it’s not nearly as easy to impress people with each new film, especially as the quality of your work goes up. Let me explain that last part…
When you’re starting a new skill, each little improvement represents a far larger, and therefore more impressive, percentage of learning. For example, if you don’t know how to edit video at all, and then you learn how to edit video, that’s a big difference! Congratulations, you’ve learned a lot! In fact, you know 100% more about video editing than you did before. And next you learn how to add music to your videos! That’s a game-changer! But then you learn smaller and smaller things, and the improvements are not as impressive. Intuiting the rhythm of a scene, sensing when the audience might get bored, knowing what cutting to a close-up means in a given moment vs. cutting to a medium shot—these are all essential editing basics, but none of them on their own will make or break your project. It won’t create the same “WOW!” in your parents as when you first figured out how to put the James Bond theme over your friends running around with toy guns. Your victories become more and more subtle the more you learn something.
So that’s why I had an over-inflated sense of my mastery of film. I think (dik) was so impressive at the time because it represented the last major leap in production quality, and also happened to be a passion project where I was in the zone. It was confident and uniquely stylistic (if a touch derivative). It seemed to capture some emotion, some feeling, and convey this to the audience in a way that made them really feel it. It was honest. My next film was not really an improvement on a technical level, and it certainly wasn’t an inspired work, so of course it wasn’t as good.
When I really looked at all my previous work with all this in mind, I noticed something I hadn’t been aware of before. Yes, each of my “big” movies were improvements over the previous ones, but in between I made smaller ones–and a lot of those weren’t amazing by any means. But because they were just small little things I made for fun, there was no pressure. I could experiment and play around without feeling like they needed to impress everyone. I had been doing something very important this whole time without being aware of it. And this last point is I think the most important takeaway of my analysis of young Michael. It’s the most blatant, obvious explanation of why I had kept getting better.
I made movies ALL the time. Constantly. And if I wasn’t making a movie, I was watching a movie. Starting from a very young age, almost every moving image I encountered motivated me to create something. Everytime I saw a new movie, I would grab my dad’s camera and recreate it (often using the wide selection of toys I had at my disposal—thanks again, parents!) I wanted to make a movie like Toy Story so I taught myself 3D modeling by making goofy little animations.
I wanted to clone myself so I could be like Agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded so I taught myself visual effects. And when I went on vacation with my parents, I would be filming the *entire* time…learning shot composition without even realizing it. The point is that I didn’t yet feel the pressure to constantly make the best thing ever, so I was free to play…and experiment…and learn. That’s what childhood is for. And then, with this one experience where I needed and wanted and expected people to love my work (and by psychological extension, of course, love me) but they absolutely did not, I had my first, unforgettable taste of the fear and anxiety of adulthood.
When I was in the midst of making my high school feature film, I coined a motto:
If it’s not impossible, why do it?
Confusing grammar aside, the core idea of this phrase is one of the most important ideas to embrace if you want to be a creative artist. Do what’s hard. “What’s the point,” I would say, “of doing a project you already know you can do? What do you gain?” At the age of 17, I had unconsciously figured out that I was only learning when I attempted things I didn’t yet know how to do. When I risked failure.
In the past 8 years, I’ve slowly edged away from that motto. Doing the impossible is a lot to ask of one’s self. I get angry at myself for having stupid ideas. Ashamed for not being effortlessly brilliant. Afraid of failure.
But that’s the wrong way to look at it.
“Failure” is a powerful, scary word. But you have to try to learn, and sometimes the end result will turn out great, and sometimes it will turn out bad—which is great! It’s an opportunity to learn something! It means you’re making progress. You’re now *that* much better than you were before. The important thing is that you allow yourself the freedom to create, and create as many things as possible—constantly, incessantly. The only failure I’ve suffered the past eight years is allowing my fear to silence my creative voice. If I really want to achieve my life goals—the goals little Michael set for himself 23 years ago when he first picked up a camera—I have to start now.
So this is me starting. I was afraid to begin this blog post, I had no idea what to write about. “I don’t have an idea for something that’s already amazing!” But I can’t be consumed by worry anymore. It’s time to just start doing. I encourage you to do the same.
“Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll end up among the stars.”