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The Seed&Spark Blog

Filmmakers: It’s like a trust fall into a dark hole. Try it.

June 19, 2013

• Dominque DeLeon

Editor's Note: Writer/Director Dominique DeLeon shared this experience of directing with the supporters and followers of his campaign for Rez which recently ended having raised 160% of the original ask. We asked to republish it here because Dom is so exceptional at reflecting on the challenges of filmmaking even as its happening.

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It is nearly impossible to know what Alfred Seaboy is thinking.  There is always a tension there, just beyond the horizon, a high-pressure front beyond the mountains.  Here though, it’s smooth sailing.  This is what I thought to myself as we sat on a dewy morning on the track. I had driven with Al into Bemidji with the bright idea of running with him in the morning, bonding in some way that males were supposed to.  The scenario would go something like this:

We would start running and have a conversation about life, women, love, war-all the essentials.  At the end of the jog, I would pull ahead and win.  Or at least be close.  I would establish myself as alpha of our two-man wolfpack.  We’d all live happily ever after.

It did not happen. 

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After the first four laps, Al was a full straightaway ahead of me, and pulling away.   Even if we were right next to each other though, it wouldn’t have been possible to have a conversation-I was so beat from the exertion that my lungs were pulling air like a desperate bellows.  Al had beaten me, again.  It was not the first time, and certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Directors of any kind, especially film directors, like to think they know things, and that they are always in control.  This is the basis of auteur theory, a philosophy concocted in Hollywood and perpetuated by directors (and Kanye West) that there are among us super-geniuses so great and so massively talented that they somehow negate and render unnecessary the work of dozens or even hundreds of people.  This is stupid.  This creates egomaniacs and pollutes the stream of creativity.  It also makes well-meaning people like me think that we are AIC (always in control).

We are not.  And any director that tells you otherwise is full of his own you-know-what.  A malfunctioning light, a bad camera roll, a missing actor and you are sunk.  That’s it.  No movie.  And that’s because, quite frankly, there is a higher power beyond us that we sometimes (okay, often) choose to forget.  And so we are scolded.  We are reminded.  We limp.  We recover, and return, a little more humble.  Sometimes there are several higher powers that seem to be jockeying for the right to bless or torment you.

In my case, that power was Al.

It is Monday.  We are prepping to shoot and go through rehearsals, and Al shows up in his way, unassuming.  He wears glasses.  He speaks in a calm measured tone.  And, he, Jess and I walk through the lines, improvise, try to feel out the scene.  I imagine it looks from the outside like mindless repetition, but it as actually more like boxing: plaintive taps that open the way for more honest bruising. 

Except Al never takes the bait.  I throw things at him.  I taunt him.  I encourage him.  I cajole him.  I push him.  I reason with him.  This is what we are taught.  This is what will work.  It always does.  But he remains even, cool.  And he never loses perspective or patience.  I am frustrated.  My ego is bruised.  After all, I am in control. 

Except I’m not.

This continues day after day, with Al giving me what I call “the cool”.  The cool, as I term it, is Deniro in the mirror talking to himself in Taxi Driver.  It’s Will Smith punching an alien in the face in Independence Day.  It’s who we all wish we were, cigar chomping and glorious.  It’s incredibly cool, and yet it’s not what I need.

I need vulnerable, I need conflicted, I need tortured.  But I’m getting cool.

And it’s killing me.  I’m like a child that can’t have a cookie.  But I’ve cleaned my room and mopped the floor and done the dishes and done everything I can to get that cookie.  But when the time comes, we’re at the bakery and everyone’s forgotten their wallet.

“No”, the universe says to me, “You can’t have it.”

But rather than coming clean, I am giving my own version of cool, pretending that I know what I am doing.  It’s actually a lot like Batman fighting Bane.  I’ve got a bad knee and I’m overmatched, but I’m growling anyway in righteous anger.  But I can’t hurt a fly.

And so, as if sensing this, Al breaks me.

It happens after the second day of shooting, and I’m alone in the woods.  And suddenly it hits me like a puff of smoke. 

“You have no idea what you’re doing.” The puff says. 

“Of course I do.” I respond.

And then, the Great Spirit/Film Gods/Universe proceed to tell me I am wrong.  Things go pear-shaped.  Cosmically wrong.  And I, for all my preparation, am left back broken, mysteriously in a jail that’s a hole in the ground (excuse the constant Batman references ya’ll-I love that damn movie).

When it happens I go to see Ron Winters at his trailer.  It is 9am and I’m out of ideas.  Ron opens the door and looks me over, knowing.

“Am I doing the right thing?” I ask.

“Yes” he answers.  “But you should’ve have done the pipe ceremony before you started.  There are beings bigger than you that you have to ask permission from before you undertake things like this.”

I concur, but I believe in the way kids do when they’re made to go to church.  It’s belief by default.  It’s toothless faith.  But then it’s tested.

Ron says we should cancel shooting that day.

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My ego does not want to cancel shooting that day.  My ego wants to figure out some way that we can appease the spirits and also make our day.  But this is not an adequate sacrifice.  And so, over eggs and biscuits at Shoney’s, I agree.

We cancel the day, and we have the pipe ceremony near the water.  I tell the crew we’re cancelling the shooting day, and that some of us are going to the powwow.  About half agree to come with.  The other half take a boat out on the lake. I am nervous as I am watching the afternoon grand entry, and even more when the announcer calls out our names.  He is kind, and his kindess makes my stomach churn in an incredibly uncomfortable ballet, because I am not sure of exactly what I’m doing, and I know it.

But then the moment I admit this, really admit this, it stops.  And I am empty.  And ready to move forward.

And, suddenly, I know what to do.

It was at this moment, whether he knows it or not, that I turned the success of the film over to Al, leaned on him with confidence.  It was also at this point that (I hope) I became a better human being. Prior to that, I realized, I was breaking my own cardinal rule: asking of someone something I wasn’t willing to do myself.

This is a golden promise that sounds really noble and that people throw around when they want to appear to be leaders.  And for good reason.  It fits easily into sound bites, and onto the bases of tiny statues that don’t mean anything.  It’s a great response also to people you’ve asked to do things for you that you have no intention (nor would you ever) actually do yourself.

“I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do.”

It’s a catchall for hypocrites.  And thus far I had hidden behind it and asked Al to put down his cool when I wouldn’t, couldn’t, put down mine.  And so, seeing my falseness, he broke me with the full weight of karma.  After dusting me on the track of course.  And so, fully recovered, I sat with him in the front seat of a white Ford Focus, and leveled with him.  Really leveled with him.

And he got it. 

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It is Thursday.  Or maybe Friday.  I can’t remember, because we’re shooting all night, and there’s a scene where Al has to enter a house and walk slowly up a set of stairs and then sell everything in a close-up.  This is the kind of shot that always seems very simple, but it’s really very complex when you get into the nuts and bolts of it.  First there’s the walking.  Somehow you have to channel fatigue into your body and walk in a way that tells everyone just how long you’ve been walking even though you haven’t been actually walking that long.  It sounds simple, but I swear on my life, it’s hard.  You try it.  I’ve seen experienced actors muff it, 2, 3, 4…18 times and keep coming back for that slice of suck.  I’ve seen not-so experienced actors try to sell it with the old cliches that are cliches because nobody actually does them: panting, grabbing your knees etc.  They’re universal symbols that have grown tired through their own success.  But that’s just the walk.  Then there’s the look.  It’s got to get across the subtext of everything you’re thinking and feeling without being cheesy.  It’s got to come from a real place.  This also is very hard.  Extremely hard.  Think trying to get your mom not to tell an embarrassing story about you without tipping off anyone else at the family reunion hard.  You get the picture.  And to combine this with the walking…well you have a recipe for disaster.

But so the moment comes, and Al, ever cool, is in his zen place up until the moment I call action, and then he transforms.  He becomes exactly what I could have imagined, and even more so.

You see, what I couldn’t see, and what Al would never tell or show me, was the hours and hours he spent behind the scenes prepping and absorbing this part.  The countless times he stayed up late into the night working.  The sheer effort he put into being great that was far beyond the norm.  I never asked, and he never offered.  That’s the way Al is.

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Again, later as we are outside in the sprinkling rain he needs to give me something that feels like anger.  Real anger.  Something he’s had to hide the entire way.  Another landmine.  I try all of my brilliant notes, all of my objectives, all of my “as-ifs” but they sound lame to me.  We call action, and he explodes like a dormant volcano on a Foreman Grill.

We all rejoice.  I call cut.

This is the time when most directors would lie to you and tell you that they planned this, that through some degree of skill they managed to snatch from a performer something that wasn’t there before.  And perhaps on a certain level, this is true.  But I tend not to think so.

I tend to think that our entire lives are something of a constant struggle and search to sniff out, to create, to live, the truth.  And along the way you’re going to be distracted, you’re going to be waylaid, you’re going to be actively opposed, annoyed and fought-but that these things are all necessary to break you through into a new ring of truth.  And then the process begins again.  To the degree that you work with this process, the universe grants you small opportunities to impose your will.  To the degree that you work against or refuse to believe in this process…well…good luck.  I hope your family’s rich.

In this case Al was my karmic come-uppance.  My reckoning.  And really the only reason I was able to make the film at all.  Or at least make something that you lovely people would support.  Without him, I surmise, I would’ve made something boring and easy, continued on with my life, and never gotten any better.

Instead I learned a valuable lesson: if you want people to be authentic with you, you have to be authentic with them.  Even if that means you have to be uncomfortable.  Especially if you have to be uncomfortable.  The death of your ego will hurt.  It will sting.  But what grows back in it’s place will be better.

It’s like a trust fall into a dark hole.  Try it.

I did with Alfred Seaboy.  He gave me a movie.

Thank You.

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Read more by

Dominque DeLeon

Dominque is an Independent Writer/Director/Producer working in NY, DC and LA. He holds an MFA in writing and directing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2012.

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