I recently had the privilege of having a short film I directed shown at the Hamilton Film Festival. The film, Mrs. Neverlate & Mr. Betterlate, follows the story of a first date gone wrong. Although it was shot in 2011, this was the premiere showing. The night after the premiere it was shown again as part of a charity screening. Stephen Hayes, the director of Lucky 7 (a past winner of the festival’s “Audience Choice” award), was recently badly injured and Lucky 7 was shown as a fundraiser for him. Hayes personally chose two shorts to be shown in front of his film and it was a big honor to have my film chosen by him as one of those two, especially with me being a first-timer when it comes to film festivals.
While this was my first short film, I’ve worked on and off in film and TV production since 1998. I can’t think of a moment in those 15 years that I was more nervous than when the first title card for Neverlate came up on the screen. I’ve seen my work (and myself) on TV before but that’s always been as part of someone else’s production. To see Neverlate shown in public was nerve-wracking for me because as the film’s director I have a lot riding on the audience reaction to the film.
When Neverlate was playing I was paying attention to the audience. I was hoping they would respond to the beats of the film in the different ways I had hoped they would, that they would get drawn into the film, laugh at the right places and have a smile on their face when the credits began. I had a myriad of thoughts running through my head when the film first started up: will they like it? Will they hate it? Will they find it enjoyable? If they like it, do they actually like it or they just being polite? Is their honest opinion something more along the lines of “that was so bad I think it gave me cancer”? When the applause began I finally started to relax. I said to my wife, Michelle, “I think they liked it”. She smiled and replied “Told you”.
When Neverlate was shown in front of Lucky 7 the anxiety started up again. Showing it as one of several shorts is one thing but to be shown in front of an audience choice winner was something different. Stephen Hayes saying “I personally selected the shorts” gives the audience an expectation of certain level of quality. When the lights dimmed and Neverlate started I quietly grabbed the sides of my chair and held on tight. When the film was done, and everyone applauded, I looked around. I said quietly to myself “No one seems to have randomly died…” and started smiling. “Maybe I do have some idea of what I’m doing after all…”
Even though I’ve worked on film and TV projects before, this was fundamentally different. With previous projects I wasn’t part of the audience when whatever I worked on was aired. When I worked on a show or film, I finished my part and was on my way. This is very apparent to me when I think about my time working on weekly TV programs. I never bothered “admiring” what I had done because I was all too aware that next week’s show, with all its tight production deadlines, was staring me in the face. With the short film, those deadlines aren’t there and I’m actually in the audience getting instaneous feedback on whether or not I hit the marks I set out to.
I’m not someone who likes to see something I’ve done. I never have been. I don’t mind other people viewing or enjoying something that I’ve had a hand in making but my own personal preference is to leave the room when something I’ve done is presented. For example, I’ve done TV interviews and podcasts and never listened to the final version. During a networking event for the film festival I was surprised to find out how common this attitude is among filmmakers, including actors. One actor I spoke to said he loved to perform but always closes his eyes when his character was onscreen.
In the week I’ve to decompress from the rush of the film festival, from having my first short film shown, to all the people I met, to the the fact that being at the theatre night after night was far more tiring than I had anticipated, many thoughts have crossed my mind. I know the reason I was so anxious about the film being shown is a fear of rejection. A film, even a short one, is something deeply person. I’ve heard premiering a film being compared to raising a child and having to send them into the world on their own for the first time: you’ve tried to do things the best you can, done what you can to achieve a certain level of quality, but once those lights dim and the projector starts it hits you that all bets are suddenly and irrevocably off.
During the festival’s social networking times I got into several discussions about filmmaking and they always ended up along the same lines: even if you’ve been doing it a long time, films are very hard to make. Even if you’re focusing on one single aspect of production, be it producing, directing, screenwriting, acting, cinematography, editing, you name it, it is very challenging to get everything just so. When Neverlate was filming, my cameraman said to me “there’s only so much energy in every project. I’ve been on sets that have great ideas but no direction and they just fall apart. But I’ve also been on sets with crappy ideas but they made it through because even though it was crap there was a singular idea of what the end product should be”.
I can attest first hand to how true that statement is. Directing a short film for the first time showed me first hand how difficult being a film director can be. It was very challenging because the main part of directing is, to me, keeping everyone involved, both in front of the camera and behind it, and keeping the project within an often very specific emotional area. If you stray too far in either direction the tone of the film risks suddenly becoming either too dramatic or too comedic, and that quick shift in tone can easy throw the audience off. If you lose the audience, even for a moment, it can be disastrous. With the rise of short videos on Youtube and the success of Vine, audience attention spans are shorter than ever. It’s now an uphill battle to keep the audience involved in the story from beginning to end.
It can be exhausting bringing an idea to fruition, navigating all the steps from initial concept, to scriptwriting and casting the roles, to getting locations and equipment, to actually filming, to editing and putting all the final touches on it. And that doesn’t even touch on everything that can go wrong during any one of those points in filmmaking. I’ve found that the hardest part of filmmaking is actually getting everyone together at the same time, especially when the budget is low or non-existant. I’ve worked on projects that have been delayed at the last minute, sometimes for months, because someone suddenly was unavailable. It’s frustrating but that’s part of the nature of filmmaking.
I was asked by a gentleman at the festival “you know how hard it can be to make a movie… why do it?” I replied that the hours can be long (Neverlate was shot in two 16 hour long days), unexpected things happen all through production (we had one of our actors bow out three days before shooting and replacing him wasn’t easy because we were a unionized shoot), but that moment when you see something that started out as just an idea in your head but is now projected in full color on a big screen… well, that is a feeling that is very hard to beat.
Neverlate was described as “an homage to silent films” by Stephen Hayes during an audience discussion after the Lucky 7 screening. I guess that’s as good of a way as any to describe it. While there is dialogue, it’s only in the form of narration done by Mrs. Neverlate and Mr. Betterlate, relying more on music and imagery to inform of you what’s going on. While Neverlate isn’t the type of project I’m usually drawn to, I’m very happy with the outcome. I usually am more drawn to a story with a more “philosophical” bent (perhaps that’s a side effect of studying Philosopy in university) but sometimes a story just strikes you in a certain way. Any filmmaker reading this should know what I’m talking about.
Now that the film festival is over and Neverlate had a good reaction, what now? Do I put something else out there? If so, what should it be? Neverlate was based on a poem by a local writer and actor. If I do something new, chances are it will be based on my own original idea, which means it will be that much more personal, and therefore that much more nerve-wracking when (if?) it has its first public showing.
Maybe I should see if the makers of Pepto-Bismol are interested in a product placement in my next film…
*Authors’ note: A very big shout-out and thank you to the organizer of the Hamilton Film Festival, Nathan Fleet! Cheers, Nathan!