On Vulnerability

A few months ago, while in the throes of developing a sales pack for my feature film 'Wilderness' and arranging a series of local screenings in Cornwall to keep momentum going, I was faced with a couple of moments that took nerve to overcome.  I got that nerve largely thanks to my wife who could see that things were getting to me and who helped me send some emails that helped change the course of the film's progress somewhat and helped plant the seeds of this blog (and maybe future writing, who knows?).

Through contacts that our executive producer has we had the chance to screen 'Wilderness' for someone influential enough in film acquisitions and distribution in the UK that their recommendations are taken seriously and this person really liked 'Wilderness' and offered to recommend that a few distributors watch it with a view to buying it. To be honest, this was something I never envisaged for the film. It's super low budget, not easily classifiable in genre terms and has no stars. This person didn't seem to think that really mattered and that the low-budget and unique funding circumstances, plus strong festivals showing, aligned with an improved trailer and new sales deck meant the film could find favour. Before that though, he said we needed the one thing we knew was missing. Quotes from critics, ideally those who write for recognisable publications. Through Filmstock, my day job and the Cinematologists podcast I had made some excellent contacts and indeed had not long published a 6-months in the making episode of the podcast on Film Criticism featuring a number of journalists and writers. This was before Christmas 2017 and so I set about trying to secure a response from critics I knew who write for the likes of The Sunday Times, Film Comment, Sight and Sound and others. 

We'd rinsed the lovely review our friend Ryan Gilbey (The New Statesman, The Guardian) gave us and knew we needed more. So I asked some folks. This was really hard to do in the first place. When Ryan watched the film he said that there was real angst on his part going in. There's always the anxiety of watching work by friends and people you know that it will suck and you won't know what to say. I know this is a critic and programmer. Ryan was relieved he liked it and his review suggests there's no illusion there. 

It was incredibly hard to send the film out to people to ask them to watch and give a quote. Most of the people I sent it to didn't know me as a filmmaker, only through other channels and I could hear in my head that voice saying 'they think you are just a critic who thinks they can do better'. Film critics watch a lot of films and have tight deadlines and the gig isn't well paid. So there's me asking them to watch another film, for no reason other than I need them, if they like it, to say so.

I asked, then chased, then nudged and got the point where I felt I couldn't ask again, anymore. I felt like I had asked and that people's lack of response was down to them not liking it or simply not having time. I respect both those things and was ready to put it to bed.

Around the same time, we were screening the film in Cornwall for local audiences, having been invited by The Poly in Falmouth to screen on DCP in their big room following a disappointing earlier event in November, with Cornwall Film Festival. It wasn't selling well and there was a chance that a prominent critic was going to be there and let us know their thoughts. I hated the idea that our big hometown/local screening for a film written and produced here was going to just fizzle out. I couldn't believe in a school of 600+ students and goodness knows how many staff that no one wanted to see the film that wouldn't have been possible without so many participants from the school. It was all making me pretty miserable. I was ready to throw in the towel regards the film. 

My wife told me to email the critics again. She bugged me and kept nudging me. Saying rightly, what was there to lose. So what if I annoyed them or made them finally say 'yes Neil I watched it and thought it was terrible'. I needed to do it. I couldn't have what ifs, and I'd already laid so much on the line for this film. 

At the same time I thought, the students (and staff) I work with, need to know that the investment in filmmaking (or any art) has emotional tolls on those who make it. 

So I emailed the critics. With a nice little get out in case they had seen it but didn't like it - a short statement they could copy and paste and send back to me reading something like 'I've seen it Neil and wish you the best of luck with it'.

At the same time I emailed staff and students pleading with them to come and see the film. Not for me, but because it's a work in the world that has the imprint of so many people's time and emotional investment, and because I'm proud of it in and of itself as well as how it was made. I told the critics and the students and staff how I was feeling. That I was sorry, but that I needed to pretty much beg at this point, that I couldn't just let it fizzle out into nothing. I had to keep trying. 

The results?

The screening was postponed due to snow and the prominent critic still hasn't been able to see it.

The critics got back to me, all bar one who sent profuse apologies, with incredible quotes and reviews. They really liked it, or liked something about me or it enough to provide words that suddenly filled the gap we wondered if we would ever fill. We made a sales deck that drew together the story of how we made it, the festival awards and screenings and front and centre the incredible reviews. These reviews are on the site and featured in our new trailer

Fragoso Review

The friend in acquisitions couldn't believe the reviews we got and helped us make them really prominent in the trailer. He said that a lot of high profile features would kill for quotes like these from writers at the publications we'd managed to snag. We knew that. Oh we knew that. 

The sales deck and new trailer is now being presented to distributors and you never know, you just never know. 

What matters to me, and why I wrote this blog and may write something more academic in the future, is that we share the emotional cost of our creative labour in productive, meaningful and hopefully productive ways. I think auto-ethnographic approaches to academic and creative labour are valid in the academy. It's also I believe vital to teach those who are starting to embark on creative professional journeys of what happens and what is at stake in terms of wellbeing. It's good to remind people of the humanity behind creative acts. Not everything is done with a dollar goal in mind. It is important to build and retain communities of support for indie film and independent creative practice. I am as guilty as anyone of ploughing my own furrow sometimes. 

As an aside, this summer I have and am continuing to make a point of catching up with the work of friends and peers I have promised to read and watch and haven't got round to. We all need to do our part.

Making work and sharing work makes you vulnerable (if you are a human being) at every stage. It changes and eases the older you get and the more work you do but never disappears completely, I don't think. That vulnerability can be part of what makes the work resonate and life is too short to pretend you don't care and that people's apathy doesn't bother you. Having to put myself out there and pretty much beg for people to engage reminded me of my own responsibilities as much as anything else. It's terrifying to share the fruits of our labour, but in film particularly how can we not? Without an audience for our films, what is the point? We have to do all we can to get people to see work we are proud of and I'm really proud of 'Wilderness'. The amazing reviews we've had made me feel like we made something that really connected and that people wanted to be effusive about. 

And I'm about to embark on it all over again as I start to write a new script and put a new short film out into the world. Once more unto the breach. 


Nothing Personal Will Remain

Something drove me to watch Andrew Niccol’s 1997 science fiction parable Gattaca on a dark day for those outside the privileged gates of the elite. The film deals with privilege and how society views those without the genetic or financial clout to be considered worthy of entry into the citadel. The metaphors in the film are direct and the resonance chilling. I’m neither inside nor outside. I sit somewhere along the walls, able to peer back at where I’ve come from in some comfort and to a certain extent peer forward into a potential future. 

In order to step beyond I would have to shed beliefs and step on those behind me. I’d also have to assume the persona, personality, ideology and identity of someone who ‘deserves’ entry. Gattaca is brilliant about what a person has to do in order to move from outside the citadel to inside it. Over the next five years I wonder if we will see resistance or resignation. I wonder if the current exploitation of the poor and unable and different will result in electoral revolution or cultural disintegration. I don’t want to step on anyone. I want to slingshot people past me. 

One of the things Gattaca does so deftly is that it makes the idea of being part of the elite seem poisonous and something no right thinking, socially aware person would ever want to be part of, whilst simultaneously arguing that the ability to join the elite and reap the benefits should be available to anyone and validity and entrance should not be decided by a privileged few. 

I guess I sought solace in a reminder that the impending darkness brings reminders of why the fight to remain in light matters. The other day, in a dog scuffle with a selfish dog owner (neither my dog or their dog was harmed), I broke my headphones so I’ve been without my usual companion podcasts. It was nice to hear the waves again. I must make sure that sometimes I have the lessons of humans in my ears and sometimes the lessons of nature. This morning, with new headphones and against a grey and windy backdrop, I headed out and listened to a talk by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer. Talking about her Bronx upbringing, which was followed by her success at Princeton, she undertook community service in inner city New Jersey and she discussed volunteering in the community saying:

“You can’t instil in someone who doesn’t want to do something a desire, but you can expose people who have no idea of its value to something they will continue doing” (via the NYPL podcast).

This resonated. Deeply. As an educator and someone who believes in respect and compassion. I’d like to see less inequality and people’s right to decency in life - education, health, food, clothing, shelter - protected. A supported and free health service. Education available to all, not merely the best resourced and affluent. People not reliant on food banks.

I can’t tell people these things matter. I have to find a way of ensuring moments where they see and hopefully understand for themselves. This can only be achieved by me living a true and active life, and doing what I believe and not just agreeing passively and mournfully. 

I wrote an email yesterday morning, to move from belief to action. To move beyond saying something and revelling in association towards activism. A tiny response.

This morning I visited a coffee and book shop locally. My first visit to a place that derives its name from a revolutionary poem that speaks of a desire held by many in these scary days. Howl.

I finished reading Alasdair Gray’s Lanark whilst there. Masochism again, or a need to directly engage with the horrors and realities in order to move forward? To stare the devil down?

Some passages from the very, very end of a bittersweet, prescient and scathing book that doesn’t end kindly. Spoiler alert.

“You wish to tell me they have too few jobs and homes and social services so stupidity, cruelty, disease and crime are increasing among them. I know that. There are many such places in the world, and soon there will be more. Governments cannot help them much.”

“Are you telling me that men lack the decency and skill to be good to each other?”

“Men have always possessed the decency and skill. In small, isolated societies they have even practised it. But it is a sad fact of human nature that in large numbers we can only organise against each other”.

“It is bad habits, not bad nature, which makes us repeat the dull old shapes of poverty and war. Only greedy people who profit by these things believe they are natural”.

“You suffer from the oldest delusion in politics. You think you can change the world by talking to a leader. Leaders are the effects, not the causes of changes. I cannot give prosperity to people whom my rich supporters cannot exploit”.

Lanark was published in 1981. Also in its final embers comes the title for this blog post.

In between writing the bulk of this I took Bailey for a walk and laughed for the first time I can remember in a while. I was listening to The Bugle podcast post-election special. My laugh was hearty. And to and from Godrevy I sang myself hoarse to the Manics’ Everything Must Go:

“All I wanna do is live. No matter how miserable it is”

“And I hope that you can forgive us, but everything must go”

“Are we too tired to try and understand…?”

Back in Howl. I am reminded of many things including a tweet my darling lover posted yesterday. She spoke of the knowledge, that such a clear result gives, that people are feeling the opposite of the grief and fear and anxiety felt by others. And, that those people are around. 

They are colleagues, people you let out at a junction, people who stop to pet your dog, friends. 

I am reminded of this as a woman enters Howl and declares “I didn’t vote Tory, so please can I come in?”. Discussion was loud in the coffee shop. No one voted Tory. If they did they performed a terrifying facade over cake and Guatemalan blend. The same was true at work yesterday where the dark clouds that hung outside wormed their way along our corridor where feelings of shock and terror filled the hall, where the lights seemed to belligerently refuse to switch on. Maybe they didn’t have the energy. Feels like a dark time to believe in accessible university education for the masses. 

It can’t all be darkness though. So many seem likeminded despite the blue tide that engulfed this county and its conservative kin. I am aware of the problem that ‘first past the post’ results in and do not feel that the results are wholly representative. However, these are our structures and we can still shake them positively.

In the coffee shop was an exhibition. This was the main reason I went. It was an inter-generational artistic correspondence between Grandad and Grandaughter. Beyond the despairing void it naturally started to refill with its warmth, its quality and dedication truly affected. 

It’s always about people. It’s always about people being kind and thoughtful and going outside their selfish sphere and thinking of and engaging with others. It’s always about taking time to listen and communicate. It’s about love and honesty and compassion. It has to be. I get a text from my girlfriend. She shares welcome good news and I am reminded how incredible she is, what a beautiful and compassionate and dedicated person. I am proud to know her and be loved by her and she provides me with a reminder through evidence of her actions that I can do more, I can be more. 

I buy books of the poetry of Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney. I talk to the proprietor of Howl, Lee, of Mclusky and Manic Street Preachers.

I go to leave but my way is gently blocked. A departing customer has had his bike stolen from outside. People can be not great. People can be great.