Working through The Suck
Wise men sayeth that a documentary is made three times: once when it is conceived, another time when it is shot and then again when it is edited. Each phase is an opportunity to discover new truths about the subject matter, as well as new truths about oneself.
Three years after being inspired by a young boy named Stalin in a south Indian town called Moscow, my director of photography and I are finally on the verge of leaving for our first shoot in Kerala. With less than 72 hours before we leave Boston, the checklist of things that we need to do grows ever longer. And so does the mental list of things that might thwart us from Taking Care of Business.
A 15 month stint in India left me well acquainted with the myriad factors that are most likely to hold us back: heat and humidity, mosquitoes and chikungunya, random power outages, statewide strikes, gastrointestinal distress, kamikaze drivers, obstinate bureaucracy, nosy neighbors…
I might as well add killer robots, nuclear armageddon and black holes to the list, because the aforementioned circumstances are also pretty much out of my control. In other words, there’s little use worrying about all of this.
Which hasn’t stopped me from worrying.
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As I move from conception to shooting, I have come to realize that I lose sleep about such things as a way of avoiding a bigger fear – that I am not not capable of making a film as good as the one in my head, that my many failings with hold us back.
My DP occasionally doubles as my personal Yoda, and so I asked him, Oh DP-san, what if I’m not good enough or smart enough? Doggoneit, what if people don’t like me OR my film?
Disappointment is inherent, grasshopper, said he. Use it to drive you forward.
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The truth is that the end result will never lives up to the awesomefabutabulous version of My Good Name Is Stalin that plays on a continuous loop in my mind. That’s just the facts, ma’am. The only way to close the gap between where I am and where I aspire to go is to keep working through The Suck.
For the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great…it’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.
But your taste – the thing that got you into the game – your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy.
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit. And the thing that I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be…it didn’t have the special thing that they wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is that everybody goes through that…you gotta know that it’s totally normal. The most important possible thing you can do is to do a lot of work. [link]
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So what then if you get past that phase and you are still muddling through The Suck?
Years ago I listened to an interview with five Pulitzer Prize winning authors, all of whom admitted to cringing when they read their earlier work. Not the stuff they wrote when they were angst ridden teenagers, but the stuff that earned them a Pulitzer. And so I figure that if Jane Smiley and Richard Ford have done epic, best-selling, award winning work that occasionally makes them cringe, then who am I to be immune to pangs of inadequacy?
No matter what stage you are at, if the creative work that you are doing doesn’t match up with the creative work that you aspire to do, this video at the top of this post (featuring Uncle Ira, once again) is for you. It is easily the best five minutes that I have ever spent on YouTube. At least since this (which amounted to five minutes because it begs to be viewed more than once).