Art Lives in the Mundane: A Producer’s Journal (Part 2)

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– By James Powers –

This post is a continuation from Part 1

Frankie and Molly are two dogs, a black Lab and Rottweiler respectively, that I got to spend a fair bit of time with last week. Even though I’m more of a cat person by nature, these two kind of stole my heart and gave me port in the storm in that time, bless their little pupper hearts. Despite occasional fits of barking (usually when old ladies came walking their miniature schnauzers down the street), they were some of the sweetest, most well-behaved dogs I’ve ever come across. Which is very fortunate, because they were stuck with myself and a cast/crew of around 30 people for the better part of a week while we shot a senior thesis film at their owners’ house.

Honestly, I don’t know how they were so well-able to handle the ongoing craziness of a film set happening literally in their living room; Lord knows even the humans responsible for said disruption (like me) didn’t always handle it terribly well. But handle it they did, and even managed to give me some indirect therapy via friendly face-slobbers at a few choice moments. Moral of the story, I guess, is that if you ever end up wrangling together a film shoot, get you a good boy or two to have on standby for emotional support. You’ll likely need it.

Ok maybe support dogs aren’t actually all that great for a film set. If you’re not as lucky as we were, you may just end up with a lot of dander and barking and broken stuff. But point is, you never know what unexpected blessings can show up amid the craziness of production, and that make it easier to deal with the many other things that can and do go wrong.

“Oh really?” you ask. “So basically you’re saying that film producing is full of surprises, some good and some bad?” Yup. Does that sound a little generic? Well, it is, but purposefully so. Because – despite the mystique that surrounds it – the work, magic and sometimes-chaos of filmmaking basically isn’t much different from the work, magic and sometimes-chaos of life in general. In either case friendly dogs, lots of coffee, and a sense of humor are all tremendous aids in rolling with it.

I think it can do us filmmakers a lot of good to not take ourselves too seriously. Sure, I like to think of myself as an artist, storyteller, creative, etc. etc., but when I’m on set, that artistic ego is hands-down the thing most likely to clog up the works and make me less effective. It’s shockingly difficult to maintain focus and humility when, for example, it feels as if there’s 8,000 people (ok only like 8 but still) crammed into this tiny laundry room in the middle of the day, and the scene is supposed to look like nighttime, but it doesn’t because that bleeping felt blanket outside the window that’s supposed to block daylight keeps flapping in the breeze, no matter how many clamps the beleaguered lighting crew throws at it, and by the way we’re an hour behind schedule and we need to break for lunch in five minutes, but who knows if we’ll be able to, because we can’t get the shot, because That. Bleeping. Felt. Won’t. Stay. Put. Oh and also – how did that dent in the wall get there?? Did we do that?! Gaaaah everything is terrible!

That exact scenario didn’t happen on set, but things very much like it sure did, and they’re kind of the bread and butter of production life in my experience. It all sounds petty and humorous in the telling, but in the moment it’s agonizingly stressful. I’m not a parent myself, but it reminds me of the day-to-day ridiculousness that parents frequently speak of. Probably not unlike what my mom felt on many a morning when we were kids: the car’s already been running for five minutes, James’s hair is a disaster but I literally just brushed it, Michael has somehow managed to lose not only his shoes but his socks as well, and oooh nooo do I hear someone THROWING UP?! Why is this happening now? You’re all supposed to be in class in two minutes and we haven’t even left yet!

Come to think of it my experiences as a producer very much remind me of what my parents have gone through repeatedly; as parents, yes, but also as directors of the theatre program at the high school where they both teach. I’ve seen them both go near-bonkers trying to wrangle a bunch of teenagers into a presentable production of Much Ado About Nothing or Jekyll & Hyde, and I’ve also witnessed their exhilaration when the thing almost magically comes together on opening night.

So I can attest, with a fair degree of confidence, that the risks and rewards of show-business are not unlike those of family life, or of life in general. Although films are their makers’ “babies” in only the metaphorical sense, I think some of the same reasoning applies. It seems that we as humans tend to feel incomplete if we don’t take at least the occasional opportunity to make ourselves stupidly stressed-out by trying to bring something bigger than ourselves to life – whether that’s a film, a play, a business, or another human being.

I’ve spent a lot of time, over this post and the previous one, talking about how the day-to-day work of making a movie involves much more tedium and mundane stress than most people realize. Not to be that tool who quotes himself, but in my last post I observed that “no matter what tier you’re on in the industry, a lot of the business is extremely focused on the concrete details of scheduling, insurance, logistics and so on – which is all pretty scary for a right-brained spazz like myself.” And that’s not wrong (this right-brain still definitely finds it scary) – but as I’m writing this out I realize I’ve been drawing the wrong conclusion from that fact. It’s not so much that the practical realities of filmmaking smother the art of it, although I’m frequently tempted to think that. Rather, it’s that those practical realities are the soil in which art – or creativity in general – must take root.

Most parents go into parenthood with an awareness ahead of time that the rather mystical process of raising a child is only going to happen through lots of mess and stress. Most entrepreneurs go into a new business venture with an awareness ahead of time that their dreams can only be realized through a lot of red tape and sweat equity. For our part, most of us aspiring filmmakers definitely know that a lot of hard work is ahead of us – but I think the nature of that work often isn’t as clear from the outset. We might picture a lot of deep introspection as we try to nail down our creative vision, or impassioned discussion about character with actors, or carefully crafting the aesthetics of a key shot. And while that’s all important, the budgeting and scheduling and cramming of stuff/people into cars is every bit as much “filmmaking” as is crafting that killer opening shot. Like how scraping PB&J off the walls is just as much “parenting” as is, I dunno, throwing a successful 5th birthday party.

So the magic of filmmaking is not something that happens in spite of such un-glamorous things as being crammed into a tiny laundry room with 8 people on a sweltering afternoon. It happens through things like that – after all, if the director, cinematographer and whomever else hadn’t spent that time stressed and claustrophobic and annoyed with that breeze-blown blanket at the window, they would not have gotten that particular shot, much as they may wish otherwise. And the last scene they shot that day wouldn’t have turned out with the energy it did if that observant PA hadn’t thought to make a fresh pot of coffee around 4 PM.

Art doesn’t transcend the mundane; it lives within it. As does parenting, as does business, as do relationships. So no, film doesn’t really have any special magic that sets it apart from other occupations or vocations. But that’s not because it lacks magic – it’s just because all those other parts of life have magic too, if you can see it.


About the Author

James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.

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