Friday, June 28, 2013

The Well Documented Reality of Gender Disparity in Film

When I started blogging about the "boys' club" that is the film industry in late 2011 I was quickly and loudly criticized - primarily by my male colleagues. Some argued that gender bias was impossible because box office numbers accurately reflect what the people want. Some insisted that women aren't pursuing careers in film, and that those that are aren't interested in writing/directing high concept movies. I was shocked by their outrage at the very suggestion of gender bias, and they in turn demanded to see cold hard facts.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the facts are here.

Over the last year I have seen more and more people writing about the lack of women onscreen and behind the scenes. The Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most highly regarded festival in the world, has been taking heat for consistently under-representing women directors in their competition line-up. In 2012, zero women directors competed for the Palme D'Or. In 2009 Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. The celebration soon became an increasingly murmured question across the internet "Why did it take 82 years for a woman to earn this honor?" (followed in 2013 by "Why was Kathryn Bigelow snubbed for 'Zero Dark Thirty'?").

In 2013 the Sundance Film Festival released a landmark report examining the careers of independent filmmakers who screened at Sundance between 2002-2012. While Sundance in particular - and independent film in general - is known to be less gender-biased, the news was not all good: "Almost 40%of the women said that "Male-dominated industry networking" is a barrier." And while Sundance's celebrated men go on to high profile careers, the women still struggle to realize future projects. Christopher Nolan went from "Memento" to the Batman franchise; Colin Trevorrow went from "Safety Not Guaranteed" to Jurassic Park IV. Debra Granik put Jennifer Lawrence on the map with "Winter's Bone" - and yet IMDb has no future projects listed for her.

Most recently, a statistically-backed blog about gender disparity in the spec screenplay market has been making the rounds. And a few days later, Women & Hollywood posted an in-depth follow-up piece.

The facts are out there for anyone to look at. Women are invisible onscreen, especially during the summer blockbuster movie months. And women are still struggling with a relatively low celluloid ceiling, revealed in yearly reports.

While women may not be pursing careers in film at the same rate as men, that is no excuse for the appalling numbers. Women are natural storytellers - it is the way we process and share our daily experiences. And yet, historically it has been difficult for women to have full inclusion in the documentation of humanity's stories. The remembered works of Ancient Greece are dominated by male playwrights. The beloved Brontë sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily all wrote - and published - under male pennames: Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. While we see better gender parity (if not always respect) in modern literature, nothing quite represents contemporary storytelling the way films do. Movies are a shared experience, tapping into the zeitgeist and allowing us to reflect on our past, our future, and our fantasies. Women's lack of representation is nothing short of a disservice to humanity.

Women need a chance to tell their own stories - and imagine themselves in new ways. The standard film depictions of women in a patriarchal society are as less-important characters who are not listened to. Women's characters often serve as victims (of violence, rape, or injustice) which launch male heroes into action. It is almost an accepted screenplay structure that male characters "do things" and female characters "have things done to them." And increasingly, the female image is so fetishized that young girls and older women are expected to be uniformly sexy, and woe is she who does not conform to the accepted standard. (I see little difference between Disney princesses and porn stars - they are both cartoon versions of women who should not be asked to exist.)

Sometimes women have a hard time imagining themselves beyond the stereotypes that patriarchy has created for them. Women have a legacy of "people pleasing," of wanting to be liked - but women need the safety of onscreen personas to explore their darker sides: imperfections, selfishness, rage. Men seem to live vicariously through the films they love, the characters they connect to (many of which function as wish fulfillment). Women need these opportunities too. We need to create and see ourselves as the doers, the adventurers, the flawed-but-well-meaning protagonists whose blunders and victories inspire an audience. We need the opportunity not only to tell our stories, but to re-imagine the possibilities of what our stories could be. And we need equal access to the medium that speaks to the world: movies.

Many men are sensitive to this idea of pervasive sexism in the film industry - and we should be cognizant of their sensitivity. The men we know have girls and women in their lives whom they love and want to see thrive and succeed. To really acknowledge a patriarchal society means to admit they've benefited from a biased system that won't quite give half the population fair access and due respect. You can't blame men for wishing and/or denying patriarchy and sexism out of existence. But it can't be wished away.

Men are our allies in this battle. As women have supported every venture of humankind, men need to see this as an opportunity not dissimilar to the civil rights movement, or the gay rights movement that is gaining traction every day. Men are in a tremendous position to help - once they become fully aware of the problem. For starters, we need to agree that images and language that minimize women are a problem. And if every man in the film industry mentors ONE woman filmmaker during his lifetime it would help pave the way toward inclusion. Some more extreme measures have been suggested - like targeting producers and studios who are in violation of Title VII and getting the ACLU to sue the Directors Guild. But individual efforts can go a long way.

Women in film need to continue supporting and mentoring other women - this has proven to be helpful. And I think the growing conversation is equally as important. After all, you can't fix a problem until you're aware of the problem - and this issue is gradually trickling down from filmmakers to the general public. It is trickier when we are asked and/or expected to watch every film that is written or directed by a woman - or simply about women - because gender-involvement or perspective alone is not what draws anyone to a movie. But the effort may prove well-rewarded. I recently watched "Lore" (directed by Cate Shortland) about German children confronting the aftermath of the Second World War, and "The Bletchley Circle" about a group of WWII code breakers who apply their skills to the tracking of a serial killer. Both were remarkable and original.

Women are interesting people with broad abilities and a lot to say. It is humanity's loss when their voices are repressed and their talents underutilized. Correcting gender imbalance - in film and beyond - is an imperative, and should be the next great social revolution.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Filmmaker Magazine's Letters From Blocked Filmmakers

As my regular readers know, I do not normally post a link in lieu of actually writing an essay-length blog - but since this is a link to my own piece I will make an exception.

Filmmaker Magazine is doing a series called Letters From Blocked Filmmakers - and I submitted my tale of trying for seven years to make "The Machine Who Loved." Read it here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

In Pursuit of the Tangible

Once upon a time I was a young maiden lost in a forest, worrying as the purpling sky turned the trees into black skeletons. I feared being swallowed by the night, swallowed so completely that there would be no trace of my existence left behind for anyone who might wonder what had become of me. But then in the darkness I caught sight of a flame, the fiery breath of a dragon who moved with ease through the world. Though it was but a glimpse, I decided then and there the course of my future: I was a huntress, and I would pursue the dragon.

I followed it for years, pausing only to sharpen my weapons. Sometimes we came close enough to make eye contact. Sometimes the beast lashed at me with its daggered tail, and sometimes it merely winked at me before leaping over a ravine that left me weeks behind, struggling on uneven terrain. Our occasional close contact convinced me that my path was true, and for motivation I envisioned standing in my village, victorious, with the subdued beast at my side.

The chase gave me a purpose. The chase gave me an identity. I knew my skills were developing as the years went on. But the beast was elusive, and in moments of despair I contemplated giving up - but, if I wasn't pursuing the dragon, who would I be? What would I do?

We had tantalizing moments in close proximity. Some of the villagers were certain of my impending success, and I was eager to show them how perseverance and determination and creativity could bring about the realization of one's desire. It didn't matter if I returned home bloodied, as long as the beast were beside me as proof that I had accomplished my goal.

I wandered circuitously through the forest for so long I finally lost all sense of direction. I could not tell the viability of one path from another; they all seemed to go nowhere. The dragon I once so admired began to seem merciless in its fickleness. And then one day the beast stopped in a meadow. It turned to face me, its eyes narrowed and cruel. And in the next moment, it crumbled into dust and was carried off by the wind.

I kept a hand on the hilt of my sword for a long time. I had followed the dragon for years, certain of victory, but now even the well-tread ground before me looked foreign. I had traveled in a giant spiral and here I stood at its center with nowhere left to go. I had embarked on the journey a girl, determined to find my true self and live to my fullest potential. A quarter of a century later, I finally realized I was no longer fleet-footed, my weapons had rusted, and I had lost the very attributes that might have made my quest a success.

Did the dragon disappear? Or did I?

Yes, the dragon was my filmmaking career - my passion, my dreams. Remember in days long past when I wrote a weekly blog about film, from a feminist, aspiring filmmaker's perspective? I can't write those pieces anymore, because the dragon has left me. I rarely enjoy even watching films these days. I do still care about gender disparity - in film and elsewhere - and crushing the patriarchy that lets gender stereotypes thrive, but someone else needs to get on the soapbox for now.

But, at least I have many exciting moments to think back on... The first time I screened Best of Luck for an audience - a short, funny documentary I made about my first thousand rejection letters. The Q&A that followed was so much fun and I finally felt like I was connecting with people. And I felt capable for the first time in my life - talented and relatable. Five years later, I burst into tears of joy when I received the letter stating that I'd won a Fellowship in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts. I had been so positively positive that I would win, and to feel certainty for the first time in my life felt like a blessing, and a building block. And a couple of years later I had a producer working with me on the film that I'd written to be my first professional feature as a writer/director - and like a mantra he'd said "When we get the first 20% of the budget, everything will fall into place." And then I attached an actor for the male lead - and he wanted to finance 20% of the film. After getting off the phone with him I screamed and jumped up and down and my sister joined me. We were on this crazy high, so certain that the budget would just fall into place now, so certain I'd be directing the film. We were too hyped to sleep, overcome with excitement. It would mark the end of a twenty-something-year journey, and I was bringing the dragon home!

But it all dissolved. Poof - into thin air. What happened? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Quite recently, that same producer resurfaced, still interested in my would-be mini-masterpiece. We were each three years more mature, three years more experienced. We decided to try again - in spite of some misgivings I harbored about unfortunate shit that had transpired the last time. I tried to get on board. I tried to get excited again. But I felt different. I'd already decided to move on. I'd already started writing a novel. I'd been sick, and sick again, and my stamina was waning.

Then, out of the blue, the actor I'd attached resurfaced too. He apologized for fucking up a lot of things the last time around. The producer wanted to give him another chance. The actor insisted the universe was trying to tell us something by bringing us all together again. But all I could think was the universe was trying to tell me not to make the same mistake twice. But the film suddenly seemed so viable again - so tangible. And I felt like it might be my last chance. I wanted it to be real. It seemed possible that at the eleventh hour my dragon might yet surrender.

So I said yes, let's try. And a minute later everything changed. Things that had been said turned out to be not quite what they seemed. Truths were stretched. Possibilities were exaggerated. I became immediately distrustful (I tried to do the Ben Affleck "Don't hold a grudge" thing, but I couldn't quite pull it off). Had I learned nothing from these two selfish jesters last time they'd crossed my path? But this time, with one swift blow on the candle, I extinguished the fantasy.

Goodbye producer. Goodbye actor. Goodbye film. Goodbye dragon. You can all stop lying to me now. You can stop making promises that crumble as surely as the brittle bones of an autumn leaf. That leaf cannot come back to life. Its lifespan is over. The tree may produce a new leaf. But that is another story.

I once had a vision of my career. I dreamt of making films as personal, daring, and eclectic as Lars von Trier. That is the career I coveted. To have seemingly no creative boundaries, and a devoted and supportive team of collaborators. To make film after film, asking new questions, establishing new styles. Women are never labeled iconoclasts - it is a term of merit and respect that is reserved for male filmmakers. But I wanted to be an iconoclast.

I imagined a progression of the films I would make. Small pieces, like The Machine Who Loved - the film that kept almost happening. Odd, almost scary pieces about troubled families, like Hands and Knees - the project that got me to Independent Film Week last year. My dream project was Grand Canyon, an autobiographical story about a backpacking trip gone awry. It employed the physical desolation within the Grand Canyon to explore my family's dysfunctional, isolating behavior. Then, I'd seek to start building larger, higher budget films. It's very hard for American women filmmakers to make the leap from low-budget indies to higher-budget films, because no one trusts women filmmakers with large(r) budgets. But my dream was to make a big science fiction film - a big Stanley Kubrick-Ridley Scott visual extravaganza, which also stayed true to my passion and skill with character development.

The day after Christmas I began writing my first novel. (The day after that I went to the emergency room, but again, that's another story.) About five weeks into writing my novel I realized that I was writing the science fiction film that I would not otherwise get to make. More than any screenplay I'd ever written, I thought of set pieces. I wanted my prose to express striking visuals. And then I created a strong, conflicted, poetic young warrior who is destined to play a leadership role in her tiny society. Wish fulfillment at its finest - this is the character I would have wanted to be when I first set out to hunt that dragon. Alas, back then, I had none of her composure, experience, or refined skills. And it is too late - in this body, in this tortured soul - to be that innocent girl. But at least I can write her. I can create a story for her that is worthy of her character and potential. Wish fulfillment. At its finest.

I only ever wanted to be good at something. Really, really good at something I put real effort into. Last week I had yet another surgery, and while visiting me in post-op my colorectal surgeon told me that I "really knew how to grow an abscess." This is not exactly the remarkable ability I was hoping for. But my health has become its own runaway dragon, and the wounds I bear from its repeated surprise attacks make it clear: it is another battle I cannot win. When I chase good health, it retreats.

While it is a relief in many ways to be free of my pursuit of the dragon, it also leaves me empty. I have never been so without passion, so without a goal. And this is not a Zen, happy space. This is an empty, why am I alive, what is the bloody point? space. My physical contact with human beings has been primarily in the form of medical torture. That this has been my physical experience in the world causes me more distress than you can imagine, and more distress than I can, honestly, continue to endure. If only I could have died while fighting the dragon; at least that would have been a dignified death. Being chipped away by scalpels and needles, propped open while unconscious, fogged and poisoned by drugs, is hardly the warrior's vision for her death. There truly is something to dying in battle. And I admit I have wholly conceded. I have no fight left. I have no energy to summon. I am tired of chasing the intangible.

I was recently inspired to make my "bucket list" and I was surprised by how simple and tangible many of the things on my list seem to be. Many of these things require money, which I don't have, but still - I kept things off of the list like "making a professional film" or "winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes"; things I had wanted for decades. Looking at my bucket list gives me a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe I can find some passion in my life again. Though I aimed for a list of 25, I only made it to 20 - but that I could think of 20 things I really wanted while in the midst of feeling emptier than empty felt like its own small victory.

So without further ado, here are the 25 Things I Want To Do Before I Die:

1) Fall in love
2) See the Northern Lights (Sweden)
3) See the Midnight Sun (Sweden)
4) See the fjords of Norway
5) Go on a "Castle and Museum tour" of Europe
6) Go on a "Mountain and Forest tour" of Europe
7) Travel around Great Britain
8) Must-see city: Stockholm
9) Must-see city: Paris
10) Must-see city: London
11) Must-see city: Rejkjavik
12) Visit somewhere not on the agenda and discover amazing things
13) Visit Maud in Belgium
14) Share my travels to various places with various people: Deb, Paula, Lisa, Mum... and my would-be "soulmate"
15) Become conversational in another language - Swedish?
16) Enjoy some writing success - publish a book?
17) Try my hand (and feet) at a climbing wall
18) Have a place that is unequivocally HOME
19) Own a couch
20) At least once, buy a fabulous wardrobe

I resisted putting certain things on the list that I really do want: never be bothered by health problems again; heal and become whole; have human contact with people with no surgical or medical instruments present; engage in a mutually nurturing relationship with my "soulmate" - who miraculously is not as disgusted by my body as I am; spend at least one night falling asleep as said soulmate strokes my hair or my back.

In my life, I have wanted the most extravagant things (like a successful career in film) and the most simple things (like someone to be there at the end of a hard day). They have all proved elusive. I've tried radical acceptance and mindfulness, I've tried to share my little vision of the importance of gender equality, I've tried to write stories that someone other than me felt connected to. I have failed. I used to remind myself that "A successful person is one who persists beyond their failures." But now I would like to be free of the idea of success - its pursuit has not made me happy.

But I still do not know who I am if I am not a person who is pursuing, chasing, hunting. I'm supposed to simply BE. I'm supposed to enjoy this moment. I am supposed to want for nothing. I am supposed to accept pain and suffering. I am supposed to appreciate solitude where there is loneliness. I am supposed to feel rich when I feel poor. I am supposed to feel grateful.

I have my moments, sure. But I am not enlightened. I am not content. I am tired. Tired.

From here, at the center of the spiral, I cannot tell which is the more tangible desire - a vacation, a wardrobe that reflects my true self, a couch (and a home big enough to put it in), or someone to hold my hand on a regular basis. Everything seems unlikely. I am not so foolish as to long for a magical elixir that would make everything better (especially as I'm pretty sure a key ingredient in the potion is dried dragon testicles, and clearly I have none of that on hand).

I have discarded my weapons. I keep away from the villagers because I am ashamed; I was unable to prove my worth. I have made no one's life better. I am incapable of even managing myself. I only know one thing with absolute certainty: my life needs to change for the better.

This is a problem because, as mentioned, I'm a little tired. Chasing a dragon requires a hope that is not diminished by setbacks small or large; it requires a joie de vivre. Managing a chronic illness requires unflagging optimism and patience; it requires one who can say c'est la vie and merci to the hooded figure in the dungeon. I am low on hope and optimism. And I don't know any more French.

I am not sure if I will continue this blog. I am no longer sure who I am. And being passionate requires energy. That's how I feel for now, for this week... though the physical act of writing feels good - good in the Zen way, like I am a flower that doesn't need to think to turn my face toward the sun. But usually I am not a flower. Increasingly I cannot find the sun.

Last year I desperately felt like my life needed to change - and it did: I got sicker; I gave up on my film dreams. Once again, things desperately need to change - but let me be more specific this time: things need to change for the BETTER! Good health, prosperity! Good, dramatic, soul-enriching GOOD!!! Like a nurturing rain on parched soil that makes baby frogs emerge from the mud...! Or, whatever. You get the point.

So there, let it begin. The pursuit of the tangible. The hunt for something real. Good tangible. Good real.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Luddite Asks: Will Libraries Survive?

I recently watched the independent feature Robot & Frank: a film people had recommended to me because they believed it might bear some resemblance to my script, The Machine Who Loved. Fortunately, the projects are utterly unalike. It's a perfectly fine little movie about an aging man and his robot companion, but what stuck with me were not its characters or plot. The film takes place in a near-future world that looks almost identical to our own - but, it features a library that is going through the final stages of renovation, which involves removing all of its books.

I work in a neighborhood library and I am all too aware of how libraries across the country are struggling. Financial support is dwindling, and in an age where the world's information can be accessed from a home computer the question is increasingly asked: How do libraries stay relevant?

During the latter part of Andrew Carnegie's life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the former steel tycoon turned to philanthropy. One of his major projects was establishing public libraries. The free Carnegie Libraries were built across the United States and throughout other English speaking countries. Once upon a time, libraries held a significant role in civilized societies; they were not only repositories of history, culture and information, they allowed for a stronger middleclass. In the days before attending college was as ubiquitous as it is today, libraries existed in part to advance the education of all people. All that was known could be studied for free at one's local library. Libraries signified the egalitarian advancement of entire societies.

Now we have the internet. Now we can Google everything. Have young people ever even seen a set of encyclopedias? In the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where I grew up, we had three privately owned bookstores. Then Barnes & Noble moved in and put them out of business. In the past few years, even the Barnes & Noble closed up shop. As Amazon replaces physical bookstores and e-books replace physical books it is easy to see how the writer of Robot & Frank imagined a library that contains no books.

So in the modern world, what are libraries for? At the branch where I work, we see four main types of library users: 1) People with young children and home-schooling parents who believe in the intrinsic value of books and reading as a gateway to a better education and life; 2) Low-income people who do not have a computer at home; 3) People who appreciate free access to our great collection of DVDs; 4) A dwindling population who enjoys reading, and often want the latest fiction and nonfiction bestsellers. Oh, and we also have a fair number of adults who come to use the bathroom.

For a small library, we're quite busy. This is partly due to budget cuts and being chronically understaffed. Our most crowded area is the computer tables: we allow people free computer access for one hour a day. Often we don’t have enough computers to go around. Many use the computers as a way to pass the time - checking Facebook or surfing the web. But many people use it as a vital connection for email, job hunting, and revising and printing their résumés.

Our library rarely sees a ton of people browsing the shelves. Sometimes, especially in inclement weather, we will have people with nowhere to go sitting at our tables, reading newspapers or books. Most libraries hold programs of some kind - movie screenings, free workshops, story hours for toddlers. Attendance to these events is closely monitored; our library struggles to promote its events and attract an audience. Our library, ironically, also has a chronic problem with running out of shelf space for its books.

One of the problems with some public libraries is they are run by local government. That means bureaucracy. Our branch is not permitted to decide how it spends its financing - so if what we really need is more to spend on man-hours and less on increasing the book collection, we don't have the freedom to choose. While we don't actually have enough space for new materials at the rate that we acquire them, if the librarians slow down their purchase orders they will then have their budgets for new materials decreased. This creates an unfortunate, revolving door solution: we continually weed out books from the collection. Books that were purchased as little as two years ago but have gone mostly unread are put out for sale for $1. But even worse, classics, art books and staples of the collection that haven't circulated regularly are put out for sale too.

Again, it is easy to imagine the Robot & Frank scenario where libraries simply get rid of all of their books.

So again, what are libraries for in the twenty-first century? Is it right that libraries struggling to stay relevant deplete their repositories of materials in order to meet the needs of their patrons who just want DVDs and bestsellers? How much should a library alter from its original purpose and design to justify its existence in modern society?

Many ideas are being tossed around. Maybe a city's main library becomes the working archive, the storage facility that keeps the greater collection deep and strong. Maybe the neighborhood branches just focus on the dominant needs: computers; DVDs; bestsellers. I could see such an arrangement working - though at the library system where I work we currently charge $1 for every item that is placed on hold and brought to our branch for patron pick-up. This would need to become a free service (as it once was) if most of the branches stopped carrying diverse materials. Another suggestion has been to make visiting the library more like visiting a Barnes & Noble. Part of why the B&N went out of business in my former neighborhood is because, ironically, people treated it like a library: they didn't buy; they came in to drink coffee and browse through new books. Maybe libraries need more couches and comfortable spaces, and coffee & snacks.

One thing that occurs to me is that where once philanthropists strengthened the foundation of this country by trying to give all of its citizens access to information, maybe modern day philanthropists could do something similar. A modern equivalent might be to make internet access available for little or no money in every American household. Computers have become inexpensive enough that even most poor families could afford the one-time cost of a computer that the whole family could use - but it becomes a prohibitive expense when you tack on $50 a month for unlimited access.

If such a scenario does not happen, then libraries will need to commit more space - and more of their budget - to providing their lower-income patrons with computer access. Computers are the avenue to information in the modern world, and libraries may have to choose between upgrading hardware and software versus investing in more books that, sadly, people aren't reading.

I personally don't believe that e-books will ever completely replace physical books, and I don't believe that libraries will ever be completely obsolete. But the fact that they need to alter their priorities is irrefutable. It would be ideal if more people in the community would use - and thus recognize - the intrinsic value that a library adds. Free educational and recreational workshops, free meeting space, free activities for kids... and every free entertainment a person could want: cookbooks, how-to books, the hottest titles in every category from Young Adult to thrillers to memoir to history; the latest music and movies - some branches even have Blu-Ray and video games; books on CD, MP3, e-books; magazines, newspapers... and of course, use of computers, printers, photocopiers.

Did you know libraries have all that stuff?

I love working at a library. There are so many things that cross my path that I never would have sought out on my own. There's no risk in bringing home a DVD I've never heard of, or a book I know little about: it's all free. (Funny footnote: I once had a patron watch me check his materials back in and when I told him they were late he expressed surprise. He said he hadn't been to a library in years and didn't realize materials were due back by a certain date or else they begin to accrue fees. I gently reminded him that if the materials had no return date, then wouldn’t we just be giving everything away?)

Libraries will inevitably go through changes over the coming decade, but in order to continue receiving financing, communities need to use them. If your library is not providing all the services you wish it would, please tell them. If you have ideas for how to help libraries maintain their relevance in a technologically advancing society, please let your voice be heard.

The empty library in Robot & Frank is a sad possibility - but I do not believe it is inevitable. As I have encouraged in all of my Luddite Asks posts, we need to be more conscious than ever of what we consider important. Things are changing quickly and will continue to change. I believe libraries continue to serve an important function in our society - they still have the power to be the great equalizers and providers of information, even as information delivery changes.

How long has it been since you visited your local library? What's keeping you away?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Luddite Asks: Remember When Hate Mail Required a Postage Stamp?

In spite of the provocative title, this isn't so much about hate mail, but about how the ways we communicate and express our opinions have changed with technology. I shudder to think what my adolescence would have been like had it included texting, email, and Facebook. I've always been a person who likes to express myself via the written word, and I can only imagine how much trouble that would have gotten me into as a teen. Opinionated letters to the editor would have become instantaneous remarks in an online Comments section; fan mail would have been replaced with Twitter stalking; notes passed secretly to friends would've been sent rapid pace via text; and gossip would have become permanently visible thanks to Facebook.

As a teen, I was not known to think things through. I acted on passion. Something irritated me that I read in the paper? I sat down and wrote a letter to the editor. Yes, it was an impulsive action, but it required time - typing, proofreading, mailing. And there was no public record of it after the fact (unless the rare letter was published). Sometimes a secret shared between friends might slip to another friend, requiring explanations and apologies. But there was no risk of a secret being revealed en masse via Twitter or Facebook.

Now, we are all vulnerable through acts of self-exposure.

I've known for a very long time that expressing yourself requires courage. Being visible in any way opens one up to criticism. And saying what you really think in any public forum means possibly offending or irritating people. And in the modern world, you'll get feedback on that instantly. I've stated before that part of why I started my blog was so I could start growing some thicker skin... But in part, didn't the very need for thicker skin develop because of other activities that have become ubiquitous on the internet?

I feel a tiny pang of hurt when someone disagrees with a comment I've posted in a thread. I feel a little stab when someone rejects my Friend Request or Un-friends me on Facebook (nevermind that I'm guilty of doing both). And there have been instances where I was outright attacked in flame wars on fledgling screenwriting message boards. In ways large and small, even anonymous disapproval from people on the internet can be hurtful. After initially being afraid of it, I decided to put myself out there even more.

I've long had a goal to be a professional filmmaker or a published writer of some kind. I started to realize that if I were ever to succeed on the level that I fantasized about, I would undoubtedly attract naysayers and people who would openly slam my work. I felt like I needed to buck up a little. Having a blog has helped. Posting unpopular things about gender bias in film and the government's ethical obligation to provide healthcare for its citizens has made me an easy target at times. Opening oneself up to scrutiny - by expressing personal beliefs on the internet - pretty much guarantees that one will be criticized, and sometimes nastily. But it has helped.

I can take criticism better than I used to; I'm much better at being able to separate constructive comments from someone else's personal spewing. There have even been real benefits: by putting myself out there in such an open way, I have connected with some people on a deep level. People who didn't know much about me have gotten a peak into my heart and brain. I've gotten to share why I believe it's so important to make people aware of the subtle ways that gender imbalance continues to imperil humanity's great achievements. I've gotten to share my personal experiences with being chronically ill: this was something I used to keep hidden, but I feel liberated to not harbor these particular secrets anymore. I've gotten to share what I love (films, writing, self-reflection) and what I've learned (my career mistakes, my health experiments).

For better or worse, I've given you my broken bits and disappointments - along with my opinions and explorations. While sharing so much has been positive in many ways, such exposure also has a dark side. I have definitely opened myself up to misinterpretation. And condemnation. It is a risk I was willing to take, though I am still discovering the potential for hurtful and unexpected manifestations.

Recently, someone I thought of as a friend posted a rant about me on Facebook. This wasn't just an anonymous "friend" but someone I knew in real life. They just couldn't take it anymore. All my pointless posts about gender imbalance and feminism. All my complaining about my health and finances. All my bitching and moaning about why I hadn't succeeded in my career. It was a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping moment to see this person complain about me via a rant on Facebook. Shocked and devastated barely begins to cover it. I had no idea that this person whom I respected had so little respect for me in return. She felt she was helping make me aware that my attitude and personality was self-destructive. The very things that had drawn other people to me had been working to repel her; she'd "had it up to here."

I commented on her rant and suggested that an actual friend would have expressed such things to me in private - even a Personal Message would have been a better way to receive such opinions. Then she sent me a Personal Message... stating that she knew I'd take it badly however or wherever she said it, so she wasn't the least apologetic for posting it on her Facebook wall for all of her friends - and our mutual friends - to see.

The internet allows for a level of instantaneous, public communication that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. No one would have imagined the possibility of so publicly lambasting a "friend." People still had some decorum then as to what was and wasn't appropriate to share with the world. People wouldn’t have taken out a half page ad in a newspaper to tell their friends that someone they knew was a whiner and a complainer. And no one was in fear of opening the paper one day and seeing such words directed personally at them. Times have changed.

When this first happened I kept thinking "These are the actions of a thirteen year old girl - a mature forty-something woman would never do this!" But I had to adjust my thinking. A mature, otherwise sophisticated woman did indeed post a rant on Facebook attacking someone she was annoyed with (or wanted to "help", depending on how one interprets her words). She was not apologetic; she did not see her actions as passive aggressive or self-righteous. When I told her I wanted to end both our cyber and real friendships she said "I knew you would react this way." She has made me solely responsible for her needing to write and post a public rant; she blamed me for both noticing the rant and being offended by it. And, in spite of anticipating that her words would end our association, that was a consequence she was also willing to place on my shoulders.

Maybe her intention had not been to be hateful. It was definitely hurtful. Communicating on the internet is pure action and reaction; it is thoughtless and immediate. But does that mean no one has to take responsibility for what they do or say? I own every word on my blog, which isn't to say I don't experience twinges of regret. For better or worse, this is me - my passion, what I believe in, what makes me tick. It would be so easy to STOP reading if you are offended or annoyed by something I've written about. It's easy to set my Facebook posts to "Only Important" if you don't want to see me on your Newsfeed. And if you know me in real life, you can even talk to me. We are not slaves to acting and reacting; we can make choices about who we are, what we do, and how our words affect people and reflect on our own character. And, given how impossible it is to "take things back" on the internet, it would behoove us to choose wisely.

Imagine how different this scenario would have been if this now ex-friend had needed to sit down with paper & pen - or a typewriter - and write out that rant, stick it in an envelope and mail it. By the end of the page she might have realized: maybe this isn't the best way to say this, let me think on it.

As I said repeatedly in my first The Luddite Asks piece, part of my interest in examining technology is to question whether things are better. It seems to me that technology is often a double-edged sword. I am incredibly thankful for the amazing people I have connected with through Facebook and my blog. They make my life richer and my world larger. But instant communication can burn a bridge faster than it can build one. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Luddite Asks: Haven't I Upgraded Enough?

There was a time when I was excited about new technology. (The VCR was the most thrilling thing to happen during my movie-loving adolescence!) Like many people, I felt like technology was going to add to the ease and quality of my life - and possibly pave the way for a more successful career. Now, I increasingly see my future as a Luddite. While this word has come to mean a person who scorns new technology, once upon a time a Luddite was a radical who broke machines as a form of protest. I am quickly becoming a person to whom both definitions may apply.

Let's begin with the amazing digital advances that allowed everyone with a yearning for it to try their hand at filmmaking.

In 2002, when I purchased my iMac and a prosumer Canon mini-DV camera, I whole-hog believed that digital filmmaking was going to be the great equalizer in what had otherwise been a very expensive and inaccessible art form. I had never been able to afford the switch from Super-8 to 16mm filmmaking back in the day when film was the only medium that mattered. When I got my digital camera I felt certain I'd be able to resume my filmmaking education where I'd left off many years prior. And you know what? I did.

Once I had the computer and the camera, it was super cheap to make digital films: tapes were only about 5 bucks each and I could burn my own DVDs. I made a ton of "practice" films - stuff I wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited. I did the What's Available style of filmmaking and created films that conformed to resources at hand - an apartment for a location, a friend for an actor, my sister as my jack-of-all-trades assistant. A bit primitive perhaps, but we got it done, and I learned how to tell a visual story while experiencing the process from multiple perspectives. And it was fun. An education fully worth the investment of the computer and the camera.

During this time, tons of other people were making tons of stuff too, and the world of independent filmmaking experienced a seismic shift. No longer did a person need a huge influx of cash to make a film, and film festivals became inundated with the Do It Yourself projects that many of us were eagerly making. Simultaneously, new internet sites made it possible for people to stream their films, and a new method of distribution was born. In a few short years, the entire process of creating, financing, and distributing films completely changed - and digital video and the internet was the pretty, two-headed monster.

Once I'd made a dozen or so shorts and two feature length digital films (all on budgets of literally nothing - maybe $50 for a short, $500 for a feature), I felt ready for bigger things. It was time to try and convince somebody else that I was ready to be a professional director. As I sought producers and financing a horrible new reality emerged: would-be directors were now expected to finance their own "first" (professional) film. As I hit wall after wall in trying to find a producer who could finance, the common advice I was given was "Make it yourself" - only this time, DIY meant I should use however many tens of thousands of dollars as I could milk from family, friends, and Kickstarter.

So great, you no longer need a million or more dollars to make a film: digital video has allowed for a professional-quality feature at a fraction of that... IF you can afford to essentially bankroll it yourself (while calling in favors from filmmaking friends).

It took me a while to see that digital video in fact did NOT bring about the great meritocracy in filmmaking that I thought it was going to. Yes, digital is cheaper, and it's super cool that every home computer now comes with its own non-linear editing program. But once again it seems like filmmaking is only truly accessible to those with money. Some people have made awesomely successful breakthrough movies for as little as $20 thousand dollars. And that's GREAT - if you have a great idea AND $20 thousand dollars (or available credit). Lena Dunham is probably the most famous, award-winning example of someone who took Make It Yourself to a whole new level in launching her career... with the help of her mother, who is rumored to have bankrolled Lena's first film (Tiny Furniture) to the tune of $500 thousand dollars.

Meritcracy is NOT alive and well in spite (or because) of digital video. That it has changed the world in general and filmmaking in particular goes without saying. But is it really BETTER? Post-production and effects aside, is digital better as a medium? Are the films better? Are the opportunities greater? Not sure...

Here's the biggest bee in my technology bonnet: the iPhone, and the trend for all other cellphones to try and imitate it.

When I first handled an iPhone four years ago I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Such a tiny computer with so much in the way of novelty software and apps! But even then one dark side of being an iPhone owner was omnipresent: the expense. Prices for both the phone and monthly plans have come down since then, but so too has my interest.

Here's where it becomes apparent that I am a crazy old Luddite: I like pushing buttons.

I recently attempted to upgrade my Blackberry to a Samsung Galaxy - and I returned the phone to the store a few hours later. Initially, the problem was I couldn't get it to install both of my email addresses, but I was also immediately frustrated with the touch screen. I knew I was in trouble when the instruction booklet included about 20 different ways to fondle the screen - from tapping, to touching, to sliding, to pinching. My efforts to type in a simple phone number and make a call failed when I couldn't get my fingers to hit the numbers correctly, nor could I find a way to back-space or delete. Not being able to make a phone call on my new phone was a BIG problem!

After I took the phone back to the store and they also couldn't install both of my email addresses (after 2 hours of talking to tech support), I gave up. They re-installed my stuff on my Blackberry and I went back home, with a migraine. Afterward, I had a cascading debacle with my phone carrier as I tried to get them to restore my contract to what it was before I'd owned a Galaxy for four hours. The overall experience left me swearing that I would never attempt an upgrade again.

Now I am reduced to praying that my Blackberry doesn't die, as there are very few Smartphone options that don't involve touch screens. I also discovered that my phone rate will automatically increase by 10 dollars if/when I upgrade - and I'm sure we can thank the iPhone and its heavy app use for that as well. I'm not suggesting we go back to the days of only having landlines (though in those days we didn't have to hear other people's annoying phone calls, nor was there an epidemic of emergency room visits as a result of texting-while-walking). But I really only want to do FIVE things with my phone:

1) Make phone calls. (Unlimited cell-to-cell calls is a great feature.)

2) Text.

3) Get my email - from both addresses!

4) Take photos.

5) Upload those photos directly to Facebook.

I don't want apps. I don't want more reasons to stare at my phone all day. A better name for Apple may be App-hell. iPhones are not actually intended to be telephones: they are a lifestyle choice. And that's fine... so long as the rest of us still have other workable options. I want push buttons and a phone that does 5 things. That is all.

One can't really talk about the conveniences (or inconveniences) of modern technology without acknowledging home computers. I love having a laptop and I can't imagine living without it - but that is precisely part of the problem. My laptop crashes several times a week (and has for the entire 4.5 years that I've owned it), causing an apoplexy of worry that the blasted thing is going to die on me, and take all my precious stuff with it. I backup my daily work with Dropbox, but still...

I get incredibly frustrated - almost beyond my ability to function - when something goes wrong with either my computer or my phone. It makes me want to chuck the damn things out the window. But the reality is that I can't: they are necessities... but the fancy bells and whistles aren't. The stuff I need to do on my computer is pretty basic: write (MS Word); internet (email, Facebook, watch stuff, blog, check out a few sites). Whenever my computer does an automatic update to "improve" something, it seems to inevitably make something else less stable. I don't need everything getting bigger-better-faster-more every week.

The world around me moves on to the newest gadgets at an astronomical rate. But is it possible we've reached the limit of what is actually "better"? Isn't everything just fancier now? Harder to use? More isolating? I wouldn't mind seeing home technology strike a more deliberate pace. Technology has become time consuming; I would dare say LIFE RULING. In some areas - like phones - I think we have far surpassed what is necessary (and I would say desirable). What computers can do - and technology has allowed for - is astonishing, but I think it's important to keep an eye on how it changes our lives. Being a slave to upgrades does not make for a very harmonious life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rejected, Again

I have endured more than 25 years of rejection as a writer, yet those rejections did not hurt in quite the same way as it did to find out for the second time that my federal disability application had been denied. I did not choose to be sick, and though I shouldn't take this rejection personally, it feels like it completely invalidates everything I have experienced.

I suppose they make the process so difficult because there are some people who simply want to sit on their asses and have the government support them. And I suppose there are some people who quit their jobs so that they look more disabled when they apply. And I suppose there are people who groan and moan and pretend that they cannot lift their arm or raise their leg when ordered to by the "impartial" official disability doctors.

I, on the other hand, returned to my part-time job as soon as I was able (though on slightly reduced hours). And I did not feign a disability that I did not have while being examined by the official doctors. I trusted that someone could read through my extensive medical history and understand that my particular disability has nothing to do with my spine. I have Crohn's Disease, not muscular dystrophy, a slipped-disk, or a head injury. I have a complex disease that affects my ability to eat and digest food (including absorbing nutrients), and leaves me with very little stamina and energy. I work part-time because I am not able to work full-time. But I cannot earn my keep working 9.5 hours a week for $7.75 an hour.

I have had Crohn's Disease for 30 years - since the age of 14 - and it has affected my entire life. Symptoms (and psychological distress from those symptoms) kept me from attending college, learning to drive, having a boyfriend, and finding sufficient employment. Crohn's has affected my independence in every way. I have tried, to the degree possible, to be a responsible, hard-working adult. Recognizing that writing was a skill and passion - and something I could do at home no matter my physical condition - I made it my life's work. It has not brought me success or financial rewards, but it has made me feel like a vital person with a rich life.

I have also had numerous surgeries and hospitalizations, some of which required extensive recovery time. What they don't tell you before removing key portions of your digestive system is that you will never be able to process food the same way again. Though certain problems were solved with the surgeries, other problems were created. I will forever have bile backing up into my colon because of the loss of my ileocecal valve and gallbladder. And even if Crohn's was cured tomorrow, I will never be free from chronic diarrhea because of the loss of the ileocecal valve.

Somehow, the people - or robots - who processed my disability application did not take ANY of these things into consideration. These "people-bots" are probably bureaucrats who know nothing about inflammatory bowel disease or its impact on someone's life. Yet, as the system stands, my doctors - who know me and understand my disease - have no say in determining the outcome of my disability application.

What did the people-bots see when they examined my application? Did I seem healthier, three surgeries since my previous application? Was the fact that I work at all some sort of indicator of my lack of need? (It should have been an indicator of my lack of laziness, of my willingness to TRY.)

My life continues, as it has since 2009, to revolve around medical things - doctor appointments, medication and injection schedules, trips to the pharmacy, managing symptoms, trips to the lab, tests and follow-up appointments and occasional visits to the emergency room. I have had a seton in my ass for 5 ½ months and was recently diagnosed with kidney stones - a direct result of my Crohn's. I am getting ready to do a 24-hour pee-collection project. This summer I spent almost every week schlepping my shit to the lab. And I did blood work (again) on Monday. My bodily fluids exist to be studied, and my body exists to be probed. Every orifice of my body has been violated medically - every single one: Gastric tube in my nose; breathing tube down my throat; catheter in my urethra; vaginal surgery; anal surgery. I have had to survive the psychological wounds of this: feeling raped; needing to find - on my own - ways of dealing with my medically-induced PTSD.

But I march on.

I have marched on, and on... Pursuing my writing dreams. Imagining that, even though I just turned 44, maybe there's still a man out there for me - an adventurer and soulmate who would accept me in spite of my odd and unfortunate physical experiences. In recent years my dreams have gotten smaller and smaller. I used to dream of owning a house. Now I fervently hope that one day I can have an apartment big enough for a couch - AND that I could afford the couch. It does not feel good to be halfway through life and still lacking companionship, independence, and self-purchased furniture.

I have never been able to work full-time because of the energy issues associated with my disease, but I'm good out-and-about for a few hours a day, without too much physical exertion or stress. Then I need to rest or nap. This is true whether I'm venturing out to do errands, go to work, or attend something social. In recent years my "good" hours have been reduced. There's also the matter of needing weekdays to do all of my medical appointments n' such. Most employers would simply not tolerate the amount of time that I cannot be on the job - either due to emergencies or appointments or personal limitations - so I am lucky to currently work for the city of Rochester: I learned this summer while on unpaid sick-leave for 4 months that they will hold my part-time job for me for up to a year. My family picks up the slack, covering my rent and expenses when I can't (and I never can) - but there is a limit to their ability to do this, no matter how helpful they may wish to be. My world gets smaller and smaller. And less and less certain.

Being approved for Disability would mean a chance to finally have a tiny bit of dignity and security. It would mean knowing that I could pay my rent every month.

I have had to face the reality that being a working filmmaker - my life's ambition - is probably not in my future, for reasons fluctuating among unfortunate, unfair and random, and because of my chronic health problems. I have had to accept that my life has been absolutely nothing like I thought it would be when I was a young person imagining my future: alone, poor, and sick was not what I envisioned. I have made adjustments. I have learned to emotionally separate from my body so I can endure my ongoing medical needs. To have my disability application denied - again - feels like an attempt to erase the importance of everything I have experienced. Like nothing mattered. Like my life and struggles have not registered.

I have one last recourse: finding an attorney and filing an appeal. I hate jumping through more degrading hoops, but I will do it. (I'm writing this partly to show my future-lawyer that I'm serious - I need this, and I'm not fucking around.) I just hope the federal government's strategy isn't to wait until I become utterly despondent and commit suicide, forever erasing their responsibility in helping to maintain my existence.

I also have high hopes for my new ambition: becoming a published novelist. J.K. Rowling got off of welfare after publishing a little book called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I don't need to be THAT successful to be successful. But I do need to be alive.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year, New Path

For the last year I have been on a journey - both with my health, and my career. My blog has proven to be a very interesting place to help me clarify my thoughts.

In terms of my health: it is still a bit of a trial. But I have come to understand how people with digestive disorders are both implicitly blamed (often by alternative health gurus) for being the cause of their own suffering, and expected, through dietary changes, to discover their own cures. Though it was no fun getting increasingly sick while trying to find my own dietary cure, it did bring crystal clarity to the fact that my disease is NOT my fault!

I had felt insecure and uncertain about my own role in my Crohn's Disease. I never used to tell people I had it: the reality of it seemed embarrassing, in addition to my lingering doubts that perhaps my habits and way of thinking were indeed in some way at fault. I have now liberated myself from blame. Diet, for everyone, is important and many aspects of my health are under my control, but fickle Crohn's Disease is not one of them. I feel released from this self-blame and doubt; it was wasting a lot of time and energy. I know I will have to continue dealing with the physical consequences of my disease, but I am laying the mental consequences to rest.

In another time & energy saving development, I have decided to take a break from writing screenplays. Is this a permanent "retirement"? I don't know - maybe. Will I still try to pursue my goal of being an independent filmmaker? Not right now. After 25 years of being a disciplined writer and having nothing to show for it, I'm ready to follow a different path. Many years ago I heard/read someone compare being a novelist to being a director, because a novelist chooses everything that the audience sees. So I am going to attempt to apply my writing and directing skills to writing a novel. While I've written fiction before (even fairly long fiction), I've never written a novel, and I've always been a bit intimidated by it. But the time has come for me to attempt to create something to my fullest ability - a completed work that gives me a sense of accomplishment.

I began work on my novel a few days ago and already the differences in writing a screenplay versus a novel are striking. On the positive side, it is incredibly rewarding to create a good sentence - and know that a single sentence holds power and sway in a novel. On the negative side, I can't quite figure out how to write clear back-and-forth dialogue without the benefit of character slugs - but I trust I'll figure it out. Within the first couple of pages of starting my novel I was convinced it was destined to be the best thing I had ever written. By page 13, I simply hoped to have enough plot, description, words to get me to the end. It's kind of funny, though, how I fall immediately in love with whatever project I am writing.

What does this all mean in terms of my blog? I probably won't be posting new pieces as often. For one thing, my heart has, at last, moved away from film for now: I cannot be as invested in it. But mostly, I need to devote my writing energy to my novel, and because of the care I put into each blog piece I won't be able to do that every week anymore. My blog, like my life, may be heading down a new path.

It has been quite an eventful year, and I am grateful to have achieved both clarity and peace of mind. I hope these qualities remain with me in the year to come. At any rate, I will continue coming here to share what I am learning and contemplating. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Alice!

This week marks the one year anniversary of Alice in Actionland. I have to say, this year of blogging has been better than I ever expected. Not only has it been an outlet for me to write about things relating to film, feminism, and whatever's on my mind, it has also allowed people to get to know me as an artist and a person. In turn, I have made connections with people that I never anticipated. I am incredibly grateful to my small-but-loyal followers, and always surprised when people navigating the internet pull their boats up to my shore, even if just to read a single post.

To celebrate my first year, I'm simply going to highlight some of my favorite posts.

1) The Rise and Fall of Alice Guy Blaché: Naturally, as the namesake for my blog, I consider this an important piece - and I'm glad I'm playing a role, however small, in re-introducing this amazing film pioneer to the world.

2) Why Aren't There More Mainstream Women Filmmakers?: After writing this piece I was concerned that I'd have nothing else to write about in regards to my mission of exploring the reasons behind gender disparity in the film industry, because I felt like this said it all. I explored this issue on my own for quite some time, and this blog piece summarizes to the best of my understanding the lack of women's success in film.

3) 50 Favorite Films: For my 50th blog post I compiled a list of 50 of my favorite films - from big genre films to small foreign films to documentaries. I love films, so this post is full of love!

4) Eyes Wide Open: Appreciating Independent Film Week: As my regular readers know, it was a rocky summer for me health-wise, and it looked precarious for awhile as to if I'd be able to go to New York City for Independent Film Week. Not only did I go, I had a number of remarkable experiences. I singled this piece out as it was the first of my Film Week blog posts that was picked up by Filmmaker Magazine.

5) Reflections on Half a Summer: Sometimes my blog can be a place where I can just write - poetically, philosophically. Though I try to bring the subjects back around to things relating to film and/or feminism, it's when I get to go off on a tangent like this that I truly appreciate having this space to share my words.

6) Should I Be a Screenwriter?: At the beginning of the year I wrote a post called Facing the Fork in the Road. A lot of people got to know me on a personal level through that piece, where I detailed my history in film, and my intent that 2012 would be my last year pursuing it (unless something changed). Though my year was somewhat derailed, I managed to reach an understanding of my place in the film industry, which I just wrote about in Should I Be a Screenwriter? I was very encouraged when industry professionals were supportive of this piece, suggesting it should be required reading.

7) Mozart's Sister... and Other Forgotten Women: One category of my posts includes writing about certain films I've seen from a feminist perspective. Honestly, I rarely think they are my best written pieces, though they have valuable things to say. But I'm fond of this one because it not only makes the point that women's accomplishments have not been well-documented throughout history, it also suggests some women who would make fascinating subjects for films. (Another favorite in this "category" was Hysteria: In Pursuit of the Female Orgasm.)

8) The Romantic Comedy: Chick Flick or Ick Flick?: Part of my mission here in regards to film & feminism is to disseminate crap from fact in regards to women - who we are, what we like, what we can do. Even I was surprised when I polled my women friends on Facebook and found out about their movie preferences.

9) The Secret Garden: In this completely off-topic post, I document the discovery of a secret garden. It was a magical moment - and one shouldn't ignore the magical moments.

10) Tips on Applying for Grants and Tips on Writing Query Letters: It feels good to be useful and these two posts have attracted screenwriters looking for practical advice. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Should I Be a Screenwriter?

Are you contemplating a career as a screenwriter? Or maybe you've been writing screenplays for quite some time and are starting to second guess your path? While I don't often write screenwriting-related blogs, it's no secret to my readers that I've been writing screenplays for nearly 25 years as part of my pursuit of being a filmmaker. I've had many doubts along the way. I've also made many mistakes. This is something of a cautionary tale relating to my own efforts in this industry. And I have some advice for people who are starting out.

When I was 19 years old, having taken a Super-8 filmmaking class and written my first screenplay, I decided I wanted a career in film. My father told me I was "wasting my talent". He specifically meant my writing talent. My parents have never offered much in the way of career or life advice, so I've always remembered his words. At the time, I didn't have the life experience to understand what he meant, and he didn't offer an explanation. But recently, I have begun to think he was right. I have wasted my writing talent.

Like many writers, I showed an aptitude for it at a very young age. But talent alone is not the reason a person becomes a writer. There has to be an internal force, a motivating drive: writing is a difficult and solitary pursuit. When I decided at 19 for film to be my life's focus it came from the most innocent and naïve place: I loved writing and I loved movies. I knew I wanted to be a director, but at that time unless you could make an expensive 16mm film you had no means of impressing anyone. I thought I could channel my visionary efforts into writing screenplays - and I thought perhaps it might be a way to earn a living. I proceeded to invest in books on technique and formatting (one had to learn the techniques of script format, as there was no screenwriting software in those days), and got to work.

The industry was quite a bit less congested back then, and a little more personal. Query letters were actual typed letters sent in the mail - with an enclosed Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. There was no online database like IMDb to use to search for contact names or addresses. Finding people to query required physical effort and I took frequent trips to the video store, library and post office. There were different financial needs then too: purchasing the latest edition of the Hollywood Creative Directory; a good printer able to handle 100 page manuscripts; postage. A batch of query letters was a time-consuming mail-merge project. The internet changed everything - info, access, networking - but it also likely increased competition. There weren't as many people pursuing screenwriting in the pre-internet, pre-dime-a-dozen-screenwriting-contest days, and I found it relatively easy to get read, even at major companies.

Less than 2 years after writing my first script, I signed with my first agent. It seemed completely reasonable to me, based on news reports at the time, that I could sell a screenplay for $400,000. My early writing efforts consisted of fairly on-target commercial things (serial killer stuff after "Silence of the Lambs"; a British romantic comedy after "Four Weddings and a Funeral"). If I had followed that route I might have eventually become a successful screenwriter (I almost sold the British rom-com to Norman Jewison). But simultaneous to writing standard commercial fare, I was also writing really weird shit that I wanted to direct. Worse, I liked the really weird shit. It was creative. It was my unfettered imagination. It was like nothing that was playing at a theatre near you.

With an adolescence spent in the theatre, I didn't understand then where The Screenplay stood in terms of its artistic or literary respect. It is not like a stage play, which can be published and can earn its creator respect of the highest literary cache. A screenplay, in and of itself, is never considered "finished" (people liken it to a blueprint), and the creator of a script is still at the bottom of the industry's creative totem pole - never mind that none of the other geniuses can do their work unless the screenwriter does hers. In practical ways, I also really knew nothing about what a screenwriter does. This ignorance led me astray for quite a long time.

Being a screenwriter is not like being a novelist: your life is not about writing what you want and then selling it. This is a tough concept for the beginning screenwriter to fully grasp, because when you're starting out ALL you're doing is writing whatever you want. It wasn't until the past few years, when I became friends with other writers and filmmakers online, that I really got the complete picture as to what the professional screenwriter does (taking meetings & "auditioning" for writing assignments) and what skills she needs to have (building an outline from an idea, analyzing story & structure, writing via committee). The original screenplay, in most instances, serves only as the writing "sample" - which isn't to say writers don't sell their original scripts, but that is not how a screenwriter typically makes a living, nor are most studio films based on original work. If I'd really understood all of this when I was 19, I might have tried harder to somehow pursue filmmaking rather than filmmaking-via-writing. But I kept writing. And writing. And rewriting. And querying. Always believing in the dream.

Over time, I moved away from both the weird and the marketable varieties of screenplays. I entered the phase of Serious Dramas. Those scripts did reasonably well in the Nicholl Fellowships (the industry's most prestigious writing contest, sponsored by the Academy Award people). But I was still spinning my wheels: I've always had just enough positive feedback to keep me going, without making significant headway. Fortunately, digital video had become accessible by the turn of the century, and I was finally able to make my own movies: mega-cheap things with no crew, but I was able to resume the visual storytelling education I'd abandoned in the late 1980's after being unable to afford the switch from Super-8 to 16mm film.

In 2008 I experienced my first major accomplishment - and stopped being a contest bridesmaid: I won a Fellowship in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts, joining the ranks of previous Fellows such as Spike Lee, Julie Taymor and Tony Kushner. It helped me to finally get serious about my mission. I finally, finally realized that I needed to brand myself. I needed a specific focus, and I needed to be able to communicate to people exactly what sort of filmmaker I intended to be. I'd always loved big genre films, but my writing had been more deeply influenced by foreign and independent dramas. I made the decision to combine these two passions and write character-driven work tinged with genre elements like science fiction, horror, etc. I occasionally veer from that mission, but when asked I always state "character-driven with hints of genre" as my self-declared brand.

Could I make it now as a professional screenwriter? Realistically, no. (There was a period in my early-to-mid 20's when the answer might have been "maybe".) I love what I write & can't seem to stop; I imagine my scripts as completed films that I desire to see. But in the world of franchises, adaptations, sequels and remakes I think my writing is back to looking like "weird shit" again, even though I've finally become very good at what I do. But more importantly, I know I would not do well writing within the confines of what the industry demands. And to some degree I've always known that: my desire to be an independent filmmaker stems from a passion for having at least some autonomy for my vision. I also simply do not have the requisite skills mentioned above: developing someone else's idea into an outline (I don't even outline my own work); analyzing story and structure to pitch ideas, rewrite projects, etc.; congenially playing along with conflicting demands... and don't get me started on the trend of Bake-Offs. Now that I know what it entails, I understand it is not the career for me.

Could YOU make it as a professional screenwriter? It's entirely possible - especially if you have a strong grasp of the business, and of the obstacles you will have to embrace. You also need to understand your skills and motivation: know who you are as a writer, and what you hope to get out of it. The more specific you can be about these things, the better. (In hindsight, "I love writing and movies" was not a great reason to pursue an almost impossible career.) Brand yourself as early as possible; for one thing, it will help you focus. It also may help you find a manager who may be instrumental in getting your career to the next level. Again, it doesn't mean you can't write other things - but there's a reason why actors are typecast: people want to immediately understand how you fit in to the industry. Being an "action" writer is marketable in the same way as it is for an actor. It may sound counterintuitive, but it's actually much harder to get work (as writer or actor) if you're trying to "do it all."

Simply put: if you want to succeed as a professional screenwriter, you have to love the game.

But here's what I really want to impart to new screenwriters, or people interested in film who may be on the fence: if you are toying with pursuing screenwriting versus pursuing something else, pursue the other thing! I cannot overemphasize this! If it's a toss-up between writing YA novels or writing screenplays, write YA novels. If you're trying to decide among jobs in film and possibilities beyond screenwriting are on your list, choose the other thing. And if you feel you can make a decision between being an artist versus doing something else, do the other thing! (The rest of us just can't help ourselves.)

Anyone who's passionate about writing will find more long-term fulfillment in writing something other than screenplays. I say this as someone who LOVES writing screenplays... But over time, there is little to show for what I have learned, accomplished, or written. I can't publish my life's work, and most people - industry included - hate reading scripts. I have a body of work that I can't even effectively share with people! If you write because you want to be expressive, creative, want control over your work - or credit for the vision - write something other than screenplays. I have dabbled in many other forms of writing, but screenwriting was always front and center: if I could do it again, I'd put novels first. It's not too late - I plan to start writing novels, but I know it could be years before I'm as comfortable with fiction as I am with screenplays.

Similarly, if you're considering a career in film, I'd advise you to pursue anything except writing or directing. Get a real skill - like editing, visual effects, production managing, sound recording, etc. If you have a technical skill you will be able to make a living in the film/television industry! Until recently, the most successful people I knew in film all worked on the production or tech end - it's marketable, it's tangible, it pays. It's also a great way to meet people and learn the ins-and-outs of both filmmaking and the business... which you can use to your advantage when you're ready to write/direct your own film.

If screenwriting is the only thing you've ever wanted to do, you will pursue it regardless of what anyone may advise. And that's probably okay, because I know you'll be smarter about it than I was - for one thing, you're starting out with access to a wealth of information. I encourage you to be aware that given the whims of this industry, it is just as likely that you will accomplish your goals via an indirect path as a direct one. Again, in hindsight, I wish I'd pursued editing. Editing was one of the skills I excelled at in my first filmmaking class. If I'd pursued editing I likely would have had a decent, even great career (though possibly difficult and competitive) - and very likely could have gotten further by now with my writing/directing. I WISH someone had told me as a young filmmaker to pursue something this practical as the first step!

Can I still make it as an independent filmmaker? Possibly. I've put in the hard work of learning to tell a story both visually and on paper. I think my wisdom, maturity, communication skills and sense of humor are real assets at this point. And I've got a couple little coals in the fire. But I've been around long enough to understand that Not Everyone Makes It. Sticking around is more than half the battle. But eventually the stars literally need to align: the right people need to like a script at the right time... and then we'll all need more luck to secure financing, the perfect cast and crew, etc. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a village PLUS a happy confluence of events to make a film!

I also wonder sometimes: if I could tell my 19-year old self what I know now, would I have listened? There is something to be said for pursuing your own path, no matter how twisty and harrowing it may be. But at some point - and 25 years may be that point - it is easy to wish that things weren’t always so bloody difficult. In recent years I've begun asking myself: has this struggle been worth it? I had lived without regrets for a long time, but as the lack of a successful career ties into other middle-age absences, one starts to wonder. I wish I'd had the career of Lars von Trier. I recognize it is too late to have the career breadth I once dreamt of. But, more than ever, I'm a storyteller to the core. And I still see writing as my only viable ticket out of poverty. One way or another, I will find a place in the world for my stories.