Friday, December 16, 2011

Thoughts on Filmmaking and Happiness

Working on films is tough. Really tough. They become harder when you're working on them for free, and  even harder when you have a bar set so high that you just can't seem to step back and say "it's finished". There's the common saying that films are never truly finished. You always find things that you can improve on. Eventually, they have to escape the parental embrace of the producers and director so that others can enjoy them.

For my first major filmmaking endeavor to be involved with, this proved to more true than anything else. It was our baby. It still is our baby. We didn't want it to leave the house until it was ready. 

For "Roots of Happiness," that was a period of about a year and a half. The first real work on the production began in the Spring of 2010, and the final edit was completed in December of 2011. This was a project unlike anything else I've ever worked on before. I was working abroad. I had a team that was much more talented than I was. I had a major role to play, and the stakes were high. I wasn't getting graded on this project. I didn't have professors to help me out along the way. I had to give my best effort and do it right, otherwise run the risk of letting not only myself and my team down...but letting the children of Tumaini down.

That becomes hard, because doing that kind of self reflection on a humanitarian project can play tricks on what your true intentions are.

If there's one thing I hate about filmmaking, it's the ego that seems to come with the profession. You are always trying to sell yourself. You need to. That's how you make contacts and get new jobs. In the process, you hype yourself up so much that sometimes you believe that you're always best for the job. There is no room for humility. Admitting weakness can be the kiss of death. You are literally competing with every yahoo with a YouTube account. Filmmaking is democratized now, and everyone thinks they are the next Steven Spielberg.

I was lucky. I came in with the expectation that I would be a Production Assistant. I would learn how to use the cameras and equipment on the ground by observing. I had dabbled in production while in college, but my focus was screenwriting. I knew my level of skill wasn't up to par yet. I had something to prove, but I didn't have that confidence to approach this project with that ego.

All of that got thrown out of the window when we stepped foot into Tumaini. Being with those kids changed my life. Literally. I took a bigger role in the production of the film, but everything revolved around the beauty and happiness of these kids. I would take breaks to play soccer or talk with them. They were so kind and so humble. Whenever I feel down and out, I close my eyes and think of Tumaini, and I smile again. You can't help it. 

That kind of lesson came at the perfect time in my life. I was fresh out of college with a lot to prove. I was finding out what kind of man I wanted to be. They touched my heart when I was most impressionable, and it's affected my career and how I approach filmmaking and life ever since. They purified my intentions.

Now this project wasn't all roses and rainbow unicorns, either. There were rough times as well. When I was asked to write the script, it was months after the trip and at a time when I was unemployed, depressed, and not sure what life had in store for me. I was questioning my writing skills too. What drove me to stay up late and pump out 7 drafts of the script with my director was those kids. I watched every clip and logged every interview, and for 2 months I literally lived in that brief time we were all in Tumaini.

That's when the story started taking shape. As it did, I started to appreciate everything I had and how lucky I truly was. I had confidence in what I did, but that arrogant ego that usually comes with it was dissolved by good intentions. 7 drafts later, my major role on the film was finished.

I look back at the last year and a half, and I realized how much this film impacted my life and how I approach filmmaking. That ego is still there, but good intentions always prevail. I'm less jealous and more grateful.  Most of all, I realized how sacred my art really is. It isn't my job to promote my skills or to entertain to better myself or to score more hits on my Youtube. My job is to tell a story and make you feel something. 

"Roots of Happiness" has come a long way. I can't wait to share this story with you. It's wonderful and touching. It puts a smile on my face every time I watch it. And, with every step we take to getting this film out there to as many people as possible, that dream we had of making a film to benefit these beautiful children half a world away gets one step closer to becoming a reality. 

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