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Passion & Action: The Fuel & The Fire Of The Truly Free

by Ted Hope
March 7, 2011 1:15 AM
16 Comments
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I ran a post awhile back questioning whether Indie Filmmaking best be thought of as a hobby culture now. It stimulated an interesting conversation. Among those to respond was filmmaker Mark Savage and I asked if he'd be interested in expanding his thoughts into a guest post. Mark knows what it takes to make things happen. He has heard the calling.

Priesthood is often described as a vocation. It’s more than just a job. It’s a commitment to a lifestyle and all that that entails. Men and women of the cloth answer a calling to become a Soldier of Christ. They dedicate themselves to this calling.

True filmmakers – writers, directors, producers – have a lot in common with priests. They, too, have responded to a calling, a creative one.

After a short life in which I lived and learned and sucked in a million influences, I was ready to synthesize it all onto film – it was Super-8 film in my case, and I had stories to tell that were mine.

The desire to make these films was equal to murderous passion, and I responded to that passion with action. My weekends were filled with filmmaking, and nothing else equaled the giddy joy of the process. I became a filmmaker because I was making films regularly. That’s the thermometer of authenticity.

If I’d picked up a golf club all those years ago and were still swinging it today, I’d be happy to call myself a golfer. But if I suddenly found myself watching Greg Norman’s golf videos all day instead of swinging that two iron or chipping balls onto a green, I wouldn’t call myself a golfer anymore. If I did, who would I really be kidding?
There’s a lot of noise around filmmaking that has nothing to do with making films. Some of this Noise is helpful (Ted Hope’s website, for example), but much of it is distracting because it feeds a fear that pure filmmaking is not possible on your resources, and it distracts you from the original creative call.

Most of us are forced to become adults at some stage – yes, even filmmakers! With adulthood comes responsibility, and at the core of most responsibility is the need to generate income. For the filmmaker who got the creative call before adulthood (I’m one of them), there are some matters to reconcile.

I financed my early Super-8 movies by squirting special sauce onto Big Macs and collecting and selling the empty beer bottles of neighborhood alcoholics. My McDonald’s income and beer money enabled my filmmaking. From day one, I was pragmatic about the process, despite pragmatism not often being associated with creativity. It was clear to me that filmmaking didn’t run on ideas alone. It also ran on resources. Hell, without resources, the train wasn’t leaving the station. What I knew for sure in those days, and still know, is that nothing would stop me from making films. Nothing would derail my passion. Well, nothing except one thing. Me.

Ted Hope wrote a fascinating blog recently in which he threw an idea out there that indie filmmaking might be best approached as a hobby. With returns on investment in the doldrums (for the majority of movies) and money hard to squeeze out of shell-shocked investors, it was a fair question. It also made me consider the positive connotation of hobbies. Are they not passions?

When a kid filmmaker (a creative hobbyist) crosses over into adulthood, he (or she) brings the hobby with them. What needs to be reconciled is the hobby and the need to generate income. The two don’t go hand in hand. If you’ve been called by the creative gods, you’ll find yourself being pulled in two or more directions at this juncture. You want to spend all your time making movies, but how can you do that when mom and dad aren’t financing your food and pillows anymore? Eight hours a week at McDoodle’s ain’t gonna cut checks in the real world.

And there’s the rub. You’re now in the real world. Lip to lip with reality. And you know what – it’s breath stinks. It stinks for a long time because it takes a lot of getting used to. It doesn’t give a crap about you or your movies or your dreams. Why should it? Like you, it has its own set of problems. It’s not lacking for immediate concerns. It’s already juggling a shitload. And its first concern is getting you out of its friggin’ face.

When you’ve landed on your butt after reality shoves you and you’re alone again, it should become obvious that nobody cares as much about your vocation as you. You got the calling. You’re carrying the creative uranium. You’re the engine driver.

So drive.

Block out the Noise first. Ignore the shrill voice that insists on telling you that there is an established way to make movies and distribute them. Find the adult equivalent of a McDonald’s weekend job and call that your Financier. Or “Sir”. Write a script that can be produced for the meager money that you have. Pick locations that instantly add production value by virtue of their dynamic nature. Cast by strenuously auditioning until you’re satisfied you have the right actor for the role. Cast actors you connect with creatively. Treasure actors who take your characters into places even you haven’t gone yet. Best to go with non-union at this stage because you can’t afford union. Negotiate fair compensation in cash, food, rare trinkets, or soft sexual favors. Treat these actors like gold. Understand that the better the role you give them, the better they make you look, and the better it is for their careers. They’ve gotten the calling, too, remember?

Then make your movie.

Applying this less-than-stellar approach, I've made eight little feature films (with three currently in post), several hundred commercials, and financed my vocation with a dozen variations on the McDonald’s weekend jobs and a second career as a doco and reality TV DP. Because I like to know how things function at the grease and ball bearing level, I‘ve also worked for three film distributors -- Orion Pictures, Village Roadshow, and Absurda) – and learned editing, a little about raising finance, and a lot about the reality of the film business.

Do I survive purely on my creative pursuits? Yes. Making feature films? No. Perhaps 0.01 % of all feature film directors in the world survive purely on directing features only.

But it is the ongoing activity of film production that directly expresses the passion and sharpens the craft, and I believe that it is essential for the filmmaker to find ways and means to keep the fires continuously stoked.

If this vocation is a hobby, it is one of the toughest and most rewarding hobbies in the world. It also has its corpses. Like true love, it can bring us enormous pain and take us to untold plateaus of pleasure.

Passion is the element that enables the hobby to take flight when money is scarce or non-existent. It is the passion that gets the script written before financing is sought. It is the passion that drives the project when money is not forthcoming. It is also the passion that is tested when the stinking breath of reality is being burped into our faces.

Filmmakers who have not been through the process of producing and distributing their celluloid child often live in a state of high delusion. They're under the impression that filmmaking will and should sustain them.

Under what law?

I've seen the reality of returns versus costs from a distributor’s point of view – and the sums aren't often pretty. On top of that, we now have a market that is paying substantially less -- if anything at all -- for traditionally made films that are costing more than ever.

Production costs have not dropped to accommodate returns.

This situation has demoralized many in the business, but there is an upside if you face the reality, digest it, and take your mind back to why you answered the creative call in the first place. It was not to make a million bucks.


"Free film" , to me, has many roads out as well as in. The costs of producing films/digital stories well outside the traditional system -- within a "hobby" framework -- have plunged. This change has closed the gap between the financed filmmaker and the door knocker for whom the probability of making the next film often feels less substantial than belly button fluff.

You can buy an exceptionally good digital camera, sound gear, lighting, and edit suite for under $20K. If you work with passionate hobbyists (small crew, actors, editors, composers) whose sole desire is to make good work with the upfront understanding that there will not be substantial money to be had, the possibilities are endless.


How is this achieved?


You work with people who are also deriving income from multiple sources. Working on your feature in a key role is their opportunity to tackle work denied to them by current economic situations and/or a lack of industry credits. You gather a passionate group and they work with you when they can. You deliberately make films with short shooting schedules so the time spent on them doesn't conflict with income-producing work. Most importantly, you treat these folk as the wonderful, generous, exceptional people they are, and may you roast in a pizza oven if you don’t.

Although I have made films with healthy indie budgets, I will die before I let lack of funds stop me from making films.

My solution has been to make three films this way in the past two years while pursuing finance and producing partners for larger projects that I cannot make under a "hobby" structure.
The reality is that these three films may never recoup the funds I have spent on them; I accept that and carry on regardless because I love filmmaking.

I make movies because I have no choice.

What I do have a choice in is whether or not I decide to ignore the Noise that tells me there is one way suck filmmaking eggs and that’s the way the Noise does it.

We filmmakers have much in common with the priest. His faith gets tested, and so does ours. His dedication can waver, and so can ours. But because the calling is so strong, our vocation is a deep part of us (for better or worse).

It courses through our blood.

It’s our creative heart.

Answer the call with action. Expect to waver now and then. But don’t listen to the Noise. It doesn’t care about your project. So why care about it?

-- Mark Savage

Mark Savage has been a seriously entrenched indie filmmaker for a couple decades and will die doing the same. He's dug deeper into the business by also working for various distributors (mainstream and alternative) and happily moonlighting as (sometime) DP on his own features and web series, and the docs and reality work of energetic others. He does what he does because he has no choice and thrives in a creative hive with equally passionate collaborators. Mark shares his many passions at http://phantomofpulp.blogspot.com

Samples of work at: http://www.youtube.com/savagesinema

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16 Comments

  • Chris Hackett | March 14, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    I'm blown away by this post, amazing words. I just got finished rendering the first scene of my first feature Im doing myself (written,funded and directed). I was questioning everything. Because essentially we filmmakers and hobbyists alike look at a seemingly good image and ask "whats wrong?". We are insane because simply we must have faith. We are creating where there was nothing. We have to make people feel not only the fear of running into a burning building but somehow make the flames.

    What I had trouble dealing with was putting a production together. When things fall apart and there was so much going well til that point. The old adage "pick yourself up and dust yourself off" should always come to mind. Wavering as we might forging on is the only way to go.

  • Mark Savage | March 10, 2011 11:11 AMReply

    Nice point, Kevin.

    The collaboration only happens when there is shared "Faith" in the vision.

    And, most importantly, honesty.

  • kevin K. Shah | March 10, 2011 9:01 AMReply

    Along with Money, Talent, Support... I personally do think Faith is a part of it. But not necessarily faith in God. Rather, a 'believing' in something that will be greater than the sum of its parts. Which the best films are IMHO.

    Again, doesn't have to be God you believe in -- but at least put Faith in the Vision you are trying to execute if you want any chance of it coming to fruition.

    The source of that belief/faith -- wherever it comes from (the "Drive", etc.) -- is generally what (even unconsciously) helps get others behind it. So long as everyone is honest with themselves and each other and the cast/crew can share and "believe" in the vision as well.

  • James Fair | March 10, 2011 12:15 AMReply

    @Mike - I don't consider it necessary to discuss my personal religious beliefs on a website about filmmaking unless you can expand on why you think it would be relevant?

  • Mark Savage | March 10, 2011 12:04 AMReply

    Jason,

    You make a really good point about the (mostly) non-appreciating value of the movie/asset.

    I think this is why it is difficult to apply traditional business models to the film business.

    It's true that people do keep going back to Vegas. Film has a similar "Vegas" glamor for many investors -- lots of promise and glitz, despite the fact that the house will, ultimately, always win.

    I have a massive appreciation for people who invest in films. Racehorses, too. As a filmmaker, my responsibility is creative AND fiscal. The one thing I can absolutely guarantee to the investor is transparency and commitment to returns. I can guarantee little else. I like to be upfront about that, and it always makes me sick when filmmakers give investors assurances that are outright lies.

    In my experience, I have learned that smart investors value honesty. I wouldn't want to partner with the ones who don't.

    I like your emphasis on streams of income, Jason. It's the pragmatic and most potentially profitable way to go.

    Thank you for your comment.

  • mike newman | March 9, 2011 6:11 AMReply

    james, are you an atheist?

  • Jason @ filmmakingstuff | March 9, 2011 4:56 AMReply

    Mark -

    Great post and something I can relate to.

    I'd like to say my view of filmmaking is similar to that of a real estate investor. I work very hard to involve myself in projects and then try to find ways to make the projects produce cashflow. The idea here is to produce multiple streams of movie income over the course of my career.

    The difficulty with this analogy is - unlike real estate - you can't raise rents - and movie properties often fail to appreciate over time. So most of the investment due diligence is incomplete at best - Which for this mere fact alone, makes making movies less of an investment and more of a gamble - sort of like rolling the dice in Vegas.

    But then again, regardless of outcome, most folks ALWAYS go back to Vegas.

    Jason Brubaker
    http://www.FilmmakingStuff.com

  • James Fair | March 8, 2011 10:42 AMReply

    I think the addiction analogy is better than the priesthood. Being addicted in understandable as filmmaking poses puzzles and creativity in much the same way that other hobbies can.

    The baker analogy that the 'nobody' filmmaker came up with a few weeks ago was interesting for being analogous to a profession, but a baker is a profession by choice the same way that priesthood is. The 'calling' you are describing could also be called a 'desire' or a 'want', but a 'must' is a bit far.

    My concern is that the language is emotive and implies a 'piety' about the 'passion', that even if it inflicts hardship upon your family or yourself, it is worth it. This is same piety that has people attacking Ted anonymously upon his own site for being a 'sell out' because he sells his films. Are we 'pure'? Is he a heretic for talking of Truly Free Film when he is himself selling them? Hardly. Here's my rub - we can afford to do it and survive, as we are relatively affluent in the grand scheme of things in the world.

    The term 'addiction' would be more suitable than 'calling' as we are more like gamblers than priests. We like to assume that we'll win off of it someday and will take the losses to find out.

  • James Fair | March 8, 2011 8:09 AMReply

    Hi Mike,

    I hope I'm not coming across as passive aggressive. I think it is a problem with the text and the fact that I couldn't 'like' Mark's last response like we could on Ted's old site. I intended to be sincere and polite.

    It's more the analogy with priesthood that I struggled to understand. I'm interested in the 'calling' and completely understand Mark's point once we clarified it. My problem with the priesthood analogy, and the connotation that I had of a 'calling' in the priesthood context, was that there was in someway a divine like purpose that meant Mark 'had' to make films at whatever sacrifice. It was this sacrifice that I believed was pious.

    But I get Mark's point now, that he feels a 'calling' in that he is specifically drawn to filmmaking. My misunderstanding was just in the context of the priest.

    Sorry for the confusion. Hopefully this clarifies my point,

    James

  • mike newman | March 8, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    james,
    are you the type of person that likes to argue about everything in a passive aggressive way? just because you don't believe filmmaking is a "calling" doesn't mean it isn't.

    you are coming across as someone that is very pedantic and petty about language. i'm still trying to understand your point in all this b/c you aren't making much sense. mark is right and you are wrong on this one.

  • Mark Savage | March 8, 2011 1:09 AMReply

    James, I'm being pretty literal about HAVING to make films. It's a terrible addition with positive and negative consequences -- like most addictions.

    The "hobby" notion is a way of looking at low budget filmmaking. It's the way I solider on when production funding is tight or non-existent. Yes, it craves consumption, so it's part of my job to see that it is consumed. Personally, I haven't made a film that hasn't been distributed somewhere. The challenge is to find the niche or work to create it. Filmmaking is a lifelong commitment, a lifestyle... a "calling". If it's not that, it's pointless.

    The cinema was our first church, but the church has spawned offshoots now, and these are equally valid.

    My approach to The Life is a personal one and may not work for many. It will work for some with their own modification applied.

    Fuck or die!? Not a bad philosophy.

    Film or die!? Even better in the long run.

    ***

    p.s. not sure if less comments = less exposure or less participation; a new venue will always take a while to attract new punters and redirect old ones

  • Mark Savage | March 8, 2011 12:58 AMReply

    Thanks for contributing. Mike. I appreciate the compliment.

    Interesting the way the gods rewarded you with a break -- an opportunity.

    The "rewards" for me are unexpected because I expect very little. If the money isn't mine, my responsibility is to investors, but, beyond that, the rewards are personal.

    When you stop giving a shit about what others think, it frees you.

    I concur completely with your reference to personal time frames.

    The passion defeats the fashion.

  • Mark Savage | March 8, 2011 12:33 AMReply

    I get what you're saying, James.

    The process of making films does require an emotional investment, so discussing it requires "emotive" language, but please don't read "piety" into my comments.

    Like every filmmaker, I just do what's necessary to get the job done. Yes, it's like a "calling", but nothing's going to happen without skills and the raw experience of taking the beast from idea to script to screen.

    My main message is this: Pull down your own barriers, and do the bloody thing!

    p.s. I won't be murdering anybody for film, either; on the contrary, it's essential to treat all "collaborators" with respect

  • James Fair | March 8, 2011 12:01 AMReply

    Let me correct myself - not everyone is motivated by the desire to win big one day - but unlike priests, few would reject the offer of worldly goods for the belief of a purer cinema.

    You spoke of having a 'your desire to make films being equal to a murderous passion' in your original post. I can't speak for you, but I wouldn't become a suicide bomber for film or murder anyone for the sake of movies. This is why I can't take your comments literally. I wrote an article for Randy Finch last year about similar themes - (http://finchclasses.blogspot.com/2010/07/mind-your-language.html).

    At this stage Mark, I want to point out that I thoroughly enjoyed your post, and I don't want to seem pedantic about language. I think what you have raised is a really interesting issue - the 'calling' to cinema may well be an 'avocation' or a 'vocation' - distinct from the 'professional/amateur' argument which is divided by training and qualifications.

    Very interesting!

  • James Fair | March 7, 2011 10:22 AMReply

    Hi Mark,

    I remember the original 'hobby' post being incendiary earlier this year and wonder what the hell has happened to the comments since Ted moved to indieWire?!

    The priest analogy is an interesting one. I want to make some comments on the analogy and would love to hear your thoughts:

    I can't say that I have been to church in a while but I do recall them handing around a tray for people to put money in to fix the roof. A priest may do it for the love of God, but they also get a house to live in and wages.

    A life in the priesthood is struggling to attract people after the uncertainty of religion, yet filmmaking is attracting more and more makers. I believe this is because they are by no means the same sacrifices. A priest has a calling to 'spread the word of God' not simply follow it. They must lead and make sacrifices to do so. Whilst I would agree that there is no true altruism and if they derived pleasure from serving God then they are happy, I don't believe filmmakers are acting in the same way. They aren't making film as a servant of cinema. I know you aren't being literal when you say you 'have' to make films as you have no 'choice'. You mean you 'want' to make films. That is what a hobby is...

    My own personal problem with hobbyist filmmaking (and I've discovered it through being a hobbyist), is that the final piece of the process - sharing it with an audience - requires other people to be agreeable to your hobby. Unlike sailing, model railway building, kite flying, walking or any other number of hobbies that I could do, filmmaking ultimately craves consumption by an audience. And most likely an acceptance from that audience.

    Because it is most likely that our 'passion' - our uncontrollable burst of enthusiasm - was not kindled upon the set of our first movie, but in the dark room that we called the cinema. That is where many would say the love began and that is what most would (still) consider to be our church.

  • mike newman | March 7, 2011 8:44 AMReply

    mark, amazing post! probably the best i've ever read regarding being a filmmaker. the creative path is definitely closely related to the spiritual path.

    i, too, make movies because I have no choice. the creative gods called me 10 years ago and i've been making shorts and features for no money ever since. i've experienced way more lows than highs and i've tried to give up many, many times, but for some odd reason i can't. it's like the filmmaking gods won't let me.

    i believe there is magical power in pursuing your calling and as long as you don't give up the gods will eventually reward you. i'm still poor, but i've also accomplished things i never thought possible. in 2008 i made a relatively good amount of money from my short films by selling them to qoob tv, then the world market crashed and cut down my money tree. this sent me into a dark void, then out of the blue i was rescued by an angel in the form of a stand-up comedian. this eventually took me to hollywood where i found myself pitching a tv show to comedy central. do you understand how difficult it is to get a pitch meeting with them? yet i, a nobody filmmaker, did it simply b/c i never gave up. they passed on the idea, but it gave me the confidence to know that, no matter how difficult things become, i am progressing in the right direction and can achieve the impossible as long as i don't give up.

    very few people have taken me seriously, but i don't give a shit about it anymore. all it takes is one person to believe in you and now after 10 years of pursuing my dream i am starting to find doors opening up and slowly people are starting to believe in me.

    i have a strong plan to build a self-sustaining film career, but since i'm a nobody filmmaker i can't get anyone with clout [such as ted hope] to take me seriously. ironically i have come to realize that i don't need anyone from the establishment to take me seriously. f#ck em. all i need to do is forge my own path and follow my calling. i have come to understand that the universe works at its own pace and we can't dictate when we find success. like buddha once said, you have to walk through hell to get to heaven. some people get to heaven quicker than others and i've accepted that i'm the tortoise not the hare.

    i know nobody cares, but if anyone reading this does, you can find my no-budget work at www.ekimnamwen.com

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