In what feels like a lifetime ago —more precisely, it was almost exactly a decade ago—, I was working on a short film for my filmmaking studies at the university. No, no, hold on: I am not going to tire you with a list of the many challenges and frustrations that are all too familiar for anyone who has ever tried to make a film, so bear with me.
Instead, I wanted to write about something that is rarely discussed openly: the ‘in-between’ period, from moment that the film is completed until something ‘happens’… or until nothing happens whatsoever. It’s that time where you just sit around and wait, all by yourself, and you start getting rejections and hence losing faith in yourself.
When I completed that short film, which I titled Stairway (2009), I fell apart. I barely made it through the shooting, the image and sound editing, and the film probably would have never been completed all the way through if it weren’t for all my talented fellow students—I want to thank each and every one of them—who were working on it and kept on going when I couldn’t cope any longer.
What had started as a mid-production mild depression, became a severe case of not-being-able-to-leave-the-bed, right after the editing process was done. But what wasn’t yet completed—and, given the state I was in, wouldn’t be any time soon—was proper online editing and colour correction.
At the time, knowing that I was physically and emotionally unable to function, all I wanted to do was getting my degree and hope for the best. And so, I made the first fatal mistake—both for the film and myself personally: I declared it finished, and began sending it to film festivals, out of panic and without having fully completed post-production. I placed all my hopes on this film, expecting it to launch my filmmaking career at all costs, even though it wasn’t even ready.
I quickly learnt how naive I had been, and that the film festival world is far more complex than what I had imagined. After sending the uncompleted film to two or three ‘big’ festivals, I just sat and waited for them to write back. And what was mistake number two: apart from the fact that, yes, you probably shouldn’t send uncompleted films to begin with, there is something else you should avoid doing, and that is placing all your bets on a small number of festivals, and just waiting for their verdict. First of all, you will be waiting for a long time. Then, you will go crazy waiting. And lastly, you will end up wasting valuable time that could have been spent searching for other audiences.
After that, I made the third, final, and biggest mistake of all: I gave up.
Here is the thing, when I was depressed—as I am sure too many creators have been at some point in their lives, sadly—my brain was already busy telling me that I wasn’t good enough, and that it was never going to get better. And because of this, two or three rejections were all it took for my brain to get a ‘confirmation’ of my failure.
Once that happened, I became too scared and couldn’t deal with any more rejection, so I started lying to myself. I started telling myself, “See, you tried your best, you wrote and directed a short film, and you failed.” To this day, that is one of the most sustained and unfailing lies I ever told myself. Yes, I made a short film, but no, that was far from being my best. It hadn’t even been fully completed in post-production, and I hadn’t even sent it to many festivals for fear of getting turned down —or, God forbid, getting any yes’s.
Yet when I was depressed, those few rejections were more than enough for me. Although I truly wanted someone to tell me positive things and make me believe otherwise, deep down I didn’t give anyone a real chance to do that, and I was simply clinging to all the evidence I could find that I was a failure and needed to give up.
And so I did.
It took me about a year to recover from that severe depression and return to a ‘safer’ capable-of-functioning-in-society state. In the years that followed, I worked in different roles in the industry and convinced myself that it was enough for me, because either way I had no choice: I had an eternal and irreversible writer’s block.
But slowly, that lie in my head started to fall apart.
After I studied acting for a semester in London, I couldn’t stop writing. I spent a few months just sitting alone in my flat and writing non-stop. Without trying to force it or thinking hard about anything, but simply letting out years of silence that I hadn’t even realized had been building up inside me.
The first thing I wrote was the script for what in time would become my debut feature film, Fuck You Jessica Blair. I found the courage to send what I had written it to a close talented friend. They loved it and, after a couple of drafts, simply said, “Great, it’s ready, now go and make your film.”
That caught me off-guard. I wasn’t even thinking about making another film, I was just writing. But then it dawned on me—I’d never tried my best and failed, and what happened with my short film wasn’t reason enough for me to keep telling myself that.
So once again, I decided to try. I promised myself that this time I was trying my best, that I was not giving up after the first or second rejection—of which I got plenty as well—, instead I would keep trying until I got a yes. And I ended up getting a few of those too. Of course, it wasn’t quick or easy either, but that’s for another time (maybe).
I wasn’t sure if I was capable of putting myself through that level of vulnerability again, and if anyone would even be interested in a film that, according to the Mar del Plata FIlm Festival, ”tells a quiet story with a slow paced narrative, moving through strange situations, like a bicycle that seems to rain down from the sky.”
I always speak openly about Hal Hartley being my biggest inspiration—it’s not the time to write about him yet, but you can read all about how he brought Adrienne Shelly into my life here—, so when I was trying to decide whether I should make my film or not, I went straight to my “filmmaking Bible”, Hal Hartley in Conversation with Kenneth Kaleta, a collection of interviews with the indie film director.
A couple of the things he said gave me the final push of courage I needed, particularly when he declared:
I don’t aim at anyone in particular. It’s more like I’m sending up smoke signals. People who see the smoke signals and are intrigued come close. I do the same thing… Film could be art and making films was a worthwhile thing, no matter where it got me. (Hartley, 2008: 32-33)
I don’t have a concrete statement or conclusion to end this story. To this day, I still haven’t really decided how I feel about Stairway. It will always be associated with a deep sense of pain, and with one of the worst times of my life. But today I can find some worth in it as well, and I’ll never know what could have been if I had done my best with it, if I would have been fair as to what it needed and deserved. At the very least, I am no longer ashamed of my process, or see it as a failure.
Yet that is what happened, and in the same way I found that some people were comforted by Fuck You Jessica Blair because they relate to it, I decided to write this now, in the hopes that if someone ever recognizes themselves in this tale and experience, it will also give them some comfort. This alone makes it worth writing about. Maybe it will remind others—and myself—that nothing is permanent, not even failure.
*(Hartley, 2008: 32-33)