The first take really “stunk,” to be honest. The camera was on a jib—a long, pole-like support for film production—and the camera moved in to the target, swerving a bit like a drunken sailor.
“Back to one,” I shouted from the director’s chair, huddled over a high-definition monitor which was worth many times the value of my car (more believable if you’ve seen my car).
This was day one, take one of shot one, on what would be a nine-day, film-shooting odyssey. It was not my first time in the chair, but the first in awhile, and my rusty “directing joints” needed oiling. My crew was a mix of professionals and students participating in an HD (high definition) film production class I was teaching at Baylor University.
The shot wasn’t so hard: swoop down a little out of a higher position, moving forward into a tilted overhead shot of a character who was sitting at a table. It happens a lot in the films we see in the cinema. It wasn’t like we had explosions going on or anything. Not that day, anyway.
But most people don’t understand how difficult such a shot can be. It took five people to pull off that move. First, the “dolly grip” who pushes the dolly forward—the rolling platform on which the jib and camera were mounted—could not push too abruptly, lest the camera lurch. If he pushed too slowly, the shot would take too long and there would be more time for mistakes from the others. The camera operator tried to keep the camera well framed throughout—a difficult job with a camera moving from, say, seven feet to three feet in the air. The assistant camera team (the other three) worked on making sure the camera stayed in focus (no easy task, given the lighting conditions) and the jib dropped the correct height at the correct time. They also needed to keep the cables running from the camera to the monitor from getting caught in the dolly wheels. If we’d had an unlimited budget, we could have rented equipment that minimizes these sorts of mistakes, but we didn’t have an unlimited budget. Not even close. Nine takes later we had a much simpler shot that was adequately executed. Not spectacular, but good enough to move forward on a shooting schedule that was, now, two hours behind.
I was a little frustrated, but I had no real reason for it. These people were giving me everything they had, and nearly every independent film shoot runs in to these problems. If not these problems, then others. I was blessed, because I was given a chance few get: to make a quality, thirty-minute film. But film production is more than just a novel, professional opportunity.
As a professor of media and a filmmaker, I’m often asked how one can get into the film or television production business without starving to death, selling one’s soul, or both. Rarely am I asked, “Why should a young student pursue a career in media?”
I often require my students to read Lee Hardy’s excellent book, The Fabric of this World. They are free to agree or disagree—even forcefully—with what they read, but it gets them thinking about “vocation” in its fundamental, etymological sense as “calling.” When one is “called” to do something, one hears something or someone else calling. The “voice” is experienced as objective, not merely subjective feelings, and our response should keep that “other” in mind. Hardy and I believe God does the calling, and we hope that whatever our vocation, it should conform to God’s interest in the world He has created. There are fundamental principles: the calling should benefit others, not just oneself. Whatever one does, the day-to-day work within the calling teaches us something of godly character—discipline, patience, and focus. As the Puritans understood it, work in itself is God-honouring. Finally, wherever we work, we are likely to be engaged with other people, and those relationships should be seen as opportunities to foster Christian testimony and witness, and to give others around us a picture of God’s love and care for them. Likely the most important thing to emerge from work is that it strengthens us, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Work forces us to think, persist, and function in a strictly principled, linear way. We must pursue an objective—however small—in order to be said to be “working.” The key to happiness in work, I’m convinced, is linking the smaller objectives (“I need to get this project finished by noon”) to the big picture objectives (“this project serves a legitimate function in the world”).
For me, vocational passion is a dynamic that emerges from my relationship with God. I do my best to try to understand the things that matter most to Him. I judge these things from many sources: Scripture, intuition, logic, and philosophy. I try to understand how I have been created to advance the overarching divine purposes, and how my own interests might be reflections of them. For instance, I know that God loves truth and hates deceit. I take that to mean that truth in storytelling is something that pleases Him. Scientists and philosophers tell us that stories have always been effective vehicles for conveying and receiving truth. By “truth” in storytelling, I don’t mean documentaries or “true stories,” but aspects of reality that can be more clearly seen when they are skillfully presented through film, including fiction.
When it came time to pick a story to tell, I found myself gravitating to stories that resonated with me in some way. It was not enough to say it resonated with me, any more than to say a beginning student is “passionate” for film. The question is, why are you passionate about film, and why did this story resonate with me? In the end, this story about an ordinary person—a pharmacist in a small town—who considers the benefits and costs of revenge, tells truth about human nature. It reveals how we often justify acts like revenge in order to make ourselves seem “extraordinary.” That is the fundamental lie from the mouth of the serpent: “ye shall be as gods” (Genesis 3:5, KJV). That this millennia-old lie persists among the most ordinary of people suggests that this story is worth retelling.
Showing us ourselves
The second stage of the film effort was hiring some good help (professional producers and cinematographer) and pulling the casting sessions together. Throughout the casting session I saw many people coming in, trying to convince me that they were “perfect” for this or that role in the film. There were many, many fine talents, I’m happy to say, but I found myself distinguishing between the best performances on these criteria: Did they understand that this story, like life, is complicated? Do they understand that these characters say one thing and do another, and can they convey that paradox believably?
This is a fundamental issue, because it must be believable that these characters would form such a paradoxical person. Imagine: something as universal and commonplace as hypocrisy, self-delusion, and confusion is so hard to convincingly portray. It is the hardest part. Perhaps, that same hypocrisy, self-delusion, and confusion is the thing that’s hardest for us to accept (Romans 7 offers some insight on this).
People often go to the movies to make themselves feel good. They are glad to see the child molesters and terrorists punished, because those people bear no apparent resemblance to themselves. Any real resemblance to them is very carefully hidden or erased from the film. Or, they see heroes and adore them, largely because these people reflect who the audience member imagines that he or she would like to be. So it has always been, as Aristotle once wrote: comedy makes men out to be worse than they really are, tragedy makes men out to be better than they really are (see his astonishing Poetics).
But sometimes films can surprise and outmaneuver their own audiences: make people think hard about themselves; show them pockets of truth that they have overlooked or willfully ignored. This is why so many prophets were asked to tell stories or, in Ezekiel‘s case, do all kinds of wacky stuff to get people’s attention (my friend Murray Watts once called Ezekiel the first biblical performance artist). I hope my cast can give people characters that are at once recognizable and complex, as lovable and challenging as our true selves.
The third stage is preproduction, a very practical stage that can be summed up in one word: anxiety. One must plan, plan, plan for every contingency, assuming that Murphy’s Law will prevail. When you are shooting on a very limited budget, with mostly volunteer help, this maxim is even more true—exponentially so. Pre-production is a chance to be as prepared as you possibly can, and the following fundamental principles apply:
- Be good to the people who are helping you, and they will work hard for you;
- Don’t compromise on the most important things;
- Be prepared to compromise on everything else; and
- Pray for wisdom to be able to distinguish between ‘2’ and ‘3.’ Those who truly have that discernment are among the most gifted directors.
Vocation isn’t about you
The fourth stage is production. My favorite filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski, once said that he absolutely hated film production, and only pushed through with his films in order that he might edit them later. I don’t know if I feel completely the same way overall, but I almost always do in the first few days of production. I simply cannot stand all the waiting around for the “vision” to be realized. People not involved in film production don’t understand that in a ten- or twelve-hour shooting day, it is completely unreasonable to assume you will get quality images of more than three to four minutes of final film. You may get more, but don’t ever expect that, and two minutes covered is not a bad day. If you must get more—as you often must, based on your failure to cover the required amount on previous days—you should assume that all those wonderful shots you were dreaming of will go away in favor of more condensed, economical ways of shooting. I had the good fortune of getting the local fire department to bring their ladder truck out for a rising crane shot one day. Unfortunately, a bad audio recorder, a cinematographer hospitalized with heat exhaustion (102Â° F./39Â° C. that day), a very noisy highway, and a very tired crew had set back so much of our shooting for that day I nearly lost the truck. We barely got the shot on film before dark and, even then, I wished I could have done the shot a few more times.
I went to bed that night frustrated and exhausted. Did I make some wrong decisions? Should I have scrapped the scene we were plowing through in favour of the glamorous shot I was conceiving in a very-hard-to-come-by fire truck? In the end, I think I made the right decision. I had an actress who had worked very hard to make my scene right, and the nearby traffic had screwed up nearly every take. That day, she’d said goodbye to her grandson as he shipped off for a tour of duty in Iraq, so she was sacrificing and giving emotionally in ways that none of us could possibly understand. We pushed on until we got a beautiful unbroken take, and her hard work was honoured. I managed to get in that truck and get a shot that will work, but more importantly, that actress offered to come back and reshoot her scene on a day her son was gravely ill in the hospital. “Joe, my son is dying and they’ve called me,” her voice breaking, “but I’m going to come and do this because you’ve done a good job and I want you to see your project through.” Fortunately, a review of the footage confirmed that our perseverance had given us what we needed, and she went to be by her son’s side. But I will never forget her call. I learned something about the commitment a cast and crew offer you, when you honour them.
We had several good days after that: moments where the crew pulled together and did amazing things. One evening around day six, the crew pulled off an incredible evening of shooting, from the lighting to several complicated moving, panning, rolling-focus shots that on day one would have been absolutely unthinkable. I think I did them nine times, just like the difficult shot on the first day, but only because they just kept getting better than I imagined they could be.
That’s part of the joy! Sure, I felt like I had to make a lot of “artistic compromises,” but the nature of vocation is this: it isn’t about you. A film director must have a vision. Vision is the goal around which the entire team must organize, but you pursue it so that you will be surprised by how much grander and more wonderful the reality can be—well beyond your orchestrated expectations. My actors and my crew often gave me things that were better than my vision, and those little revelations kept me honest.
There were disappointments, where our filming did not measure up to the vision in my head. The final day of shooting, for which we were impeccably prepared, fell apart when my lead actress had to be rushed away with a potentially serious medical condition. It was not our fault or hers; she simply came down terribly ill and could not go on. We were stalled, discouraged, and devastated. Would she be alright? How would we finish the film without her? How could we honour everyone’s hard work? How could the vision change?
To be honest, I still don’t exactly know. I finished the scene in rewritten form, and it may “work.” I don’t know if this actress can return, and I don’t know if the film will sustain her potential absence. But, then, there are a lot of things I don’t know, and there were many things I didn’t know before I started. There were many miracles along the way, small ones that I easily dismissed because it was one less problem to worry about, and the list in front of me loomed large. But as the passage of time has given me distance from it, and I have started thinking about reshoot dates, I’ve realized that two things made it all worth it to me. And, sure enough, they both have something to do with calling.
First, people do amazing, sacrificial things when they believe in something. My students (who formed most of the crew) came to understand the power of the story, and the joy of watching this abstract idea become incarnate. It really is incarnation, the whispered old promises made flesh, in the form of the Great Drama of the promised Messiah.
Second, when you see that incarnation unfold, it defies you, and makes you wonder why you dreamed in such shallow fashion. I watched my main character, a talented actor named Jeff Fenter, show me again and again how a person, a real person, could take lines on a page and make them mean things I never imagined. I watched him cry, watched him take a life, watched him weep in grief, sadness, and joy. And I watched him look back at my astonished expression at the end of a miraculous take as if to say, “Yeah, that surprised me too.” I don’t know how he thought about that, exactly, but I know, for me, it was a small moment of worship and revelation when God reminded me that He is the true Creator and the Great Storyteller.