Creative work smacks into the taste gap, and the life gap

A few weeks ago I posted a finished short film that had long been in the works: Hell is Round the Corner. About 21 months in the making, from the earliest stages until completion.

Of course it wasn’t 21 solid months of steady work in order to create a four minute film. More like four initial months of an explosion of collaborative activity: Screenwriting and various script revisions, story boarding, location scouting, lengthy hours of auditions, practice shoots, rehearsals, meetings of all sorts, construction projects, two full nights of shooting, extensive hours of editing, and several hundred total emails, phone calls, and text messages. Those are the highlights, at least.

All of that to transform an initial seed of an idea into an 80% completed short film. And then almost complete radio silence for the next 10 months or so.

Why the lengthy pause? Two kinds of things: Smacking right up against the taste gap, and the life gap.

First the life gap. By that I mean the gap between the ideal of having my shit together and the messy reality of actual life. The gap between this cool, confident, and collected husband and father who prioritizes those critical roles while also finding ample time for personal creative pursuits, and this disheveled mess who’s barely keeping his own head above water, let alone “winning” at being an awesome husband, father, and creative. How about a really quick Cliffs Notes version of this 10-month creative pause:

Moving, buying, selling houses. Huge remodeling projects. Crazy busy summer/fall season of wedding and portrait photography. Incredibly beautiful, amazing, busy, messy, maddening, go-the-fuck-to-sleep-ifying, screaming-inconsolably-for-endless-hours-in-the-middle-of-the-night-ifying, please-don’t-let-me-snap-ifying, lovable beasties of the six-year-old, two-year-old, and brand-new-year-old varieties. I had a rough go of it all, and Jessica had a very rough go of it. She’s written very poignantly and vulnerably about it at her own blog. By far the most chaotic (for better and for worse) period of my life, with the least sleep.

But that’s not the entire story, either. I also mentioned smacking face first into the taste gap, to borrow the phrase taken from Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

A friend shared this now-famous Ira Glass quote with me (not sure how I hadn’t come across it previously), as I was describing my creative dilemmas during post production of Hell is Round the Corner. And it resonated quite a bit with what I was feeling, and struggling to put into words. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve got “killer” taste–that will be for others to judge, hehehe… But after getting about 80% through post production, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that there was a sizable gap between my original vague, idealized vision for the film, and the actual tangible reality of the nearly-finished film.

I want to try to say this as clearly as I can: My friends and collaborators on this film are amazingly talented artists, whom I respect tremendously. Our leads Morgan and Matt are incredible actors that I feel terrifically fortunate to work and to have worked with. I’m in awe of Tim, Chris, and Ryan as visual artists. Taylor worked wonders with the production and post-production sound. Simone and Amaralys did gorgeous work with production design, wardrobe, hair, and makeup. All on the slimmest of budgets, with very limited time and resources, and, in certain respects, under uniquely challenging conditions.

What I’m getting at instead is my own inexperience as a storyteller generally, and as an audio-visual storyteller more specifically. My own inexperience with narrative structure and pacing. My own inexperience with transforming an amorphous idealized “mood” into a realized film. My own inexperience with extracting a sequence from a feature-length narrative and translating it into a self-contained, non-contextualized short film. My own inexperience with editing, and film grammar, and so on, and so forth. And of course the entire process from start to finish was highly collaborative, but as quote-unquote “the” writer and director, I’m trying to call attention primarily to my own inexperience.

As the edit was coming together, the pacing of the film wasn’t feeling right, at one spot in the film in particular. And in several other spots the storytelling itself wasn’t coming together in a very coherent way. I wasn’t sure how to address these problems, and simultaneously my personal life started cruising toward chaos!

Ten months and several really helpful brainstorming conversations later (thanks particularly to Simone, who’s a film writer and director herself, and a very talented one at that), I slowly started dipping back into the creative waters. I’m not sure I recommend setting a project almost completely aside for ten months, but at least in this particular case it had the fortuitous effect of providing me with fresh eyes for the film, which I desperately needed. It wasn’t so much that drastic changes had to be made, but rather that a few critical things needed to be shuffled, scrapped, and/or re-purposed, in ways that I hadn’t previously imagined. With just a tiny bit of new dialogue mixed/hidden in. Finally, after several more months of slowly picking away at these problems, and then getting the final color and sound in order, the red carpet rolled out! Figuratively, at least.

I’m incredibly proud of everyone involved with Hell is Round the Corner and I’m so pleased to finally have a completed film. But I can’t say that I’m satisfied with the finished film. There are too many things that, particularly in retrospect, I wish we would/could have done differently. Some of which are related to budget and schedule constraints, but certainly not all.

And more generally than that, I’m not sure the narrative–at least as scripted–works especially well as a stand alone short film. The narrative is ambiguous by design, which I believe can work well in a feature-length context in which viewers are given more pieces to puzzle over, even if those pieces don’t necessarily fit together in only one straightforward way. But for four-minute films which are narratively quite ambiguous, I’m now personally convinced that a good general rule is to push them more strongly in experimental or otherwise outside-the-box directions. Which, ideally, helps to tip viewers that the goal in such cases isn’t so much to “figure out” the literal narrative as it is simply to take in and be affected by the emotional/aesthetic experience itself. I think this is true on the feature-length scale as well, but it’s a particularly pressing concern for a stand alone short.

The most general dilemma of all is that this feature-length project is something that–in some form or another–I’ve been dreaming about for over ten years. It’s been variously gnawing at me, whispering at me, screaming at me, seducing me, and I’m deliriously passionate about it. As I had temporarily hit the wall during post production of Hell is Round the Corner, I kept thinking that I’ve really got to slam the brakes on the feature-length project, because I’m not (yet?) a good enough filmmaker and I don’t want to ruin it! And I think there is something legitimate to that concern. But I suppose my instincts are to keep pushing right in the direction of what I’m most passionate about, even as I still see a sizable gap between my tastes and my work. Certainly it’s the most direct route toward closing that gap, and if I’m not pushing in directions I’m passionate about, then I’ll likely burn out long before I’ve learned how to close that gap. And further, pursuing one specific passion often sheds light on and opens doors toward as-of-yet unimagined or vaguely-imagined passions. I think a good compromise here is to bite off one more short film excerpted from the feature, before making a serious push toward the feature film itself.

My soapbox two cents, at least. Now back to work. This next short is gonna be perfect

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