Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Ghosts of Saint Helens

Submitted by Wayne Spitzer

I don’t know about other filmmakers, but for me, stories can take months, years, even decades to complete. Sometimes, obviously, they never get completed, and for a good reason: they weren’t ready. Other times -- like the clever little antigens they are -- they mutate, becoming something utterly unrecognizable from that which you had originally envisioned. Still other times – as is often the case with my own work – they get cannibalized, like all those battleship models at ILM, the minutia of which have provided high-relief detail to so many star destroyers.
And sometimes – sometimes they get co-opted. Taken over. Now, this may not be a hostile takeover (indeed, if it involves, say, a fellow filmmaker or writer, it rarely is), but a takeover is a takeover, be it invasion or seduction. Often times this takeover begins when something you have said about a personal work-in-progress inspires or otherwise lights a fire in the eyes of a creative compatriot: it may be a certain narrative premise, a singular but striking image, a compelling sub-text, anything – but it lights up their eyes, and you just know that you’re onto something. Because you just saw the evidence.

The takeover matures when, “inspired” by your idea, this creative brother-in-arms suggests changes -- experience has taught me that it is here, at the skin, at the body’s first line of defense, where one must exercise caution: most likely, the friend is just doing what friends do; that is, they are captivated by your idea and want to help you focus it, they want to offer insights on how this or that might be amplified, or this or that might be condensed, or some other might be enlarged upon. You know, shop talk.

But this might also be the start of the takeover, hombre, and you better mind your borders. You’ll know right away if said friend begins making wacky suggestions like, “why not, and this would be just nutty, if instead of a two-eyed creature pursuing her, it’s – a 50-eyed creature! How ‘bout that? Or none? A none-eyed creature! Wouldn’t that be better? Wouldn’t that be more – well, more something?”

“More eyes,” you might concede.

You’ll want to pay very close attention to what they say and do next. Phase Two of the invasion will usually commence with your friend expressing a sudden disinterest, more often by finding some fatal flaw by which your project must surely fail. This will usually sound something like, “I watched Sasquatch the other night and it had a cave-painting hominid, too. It also had a crashed plane, which was instrumental to the plot. And this thing about a ‘rogue male’ bigfoot? Hmmph.
Sounds like a line of clothing.”

There’s an old saying, “God sees the truth, but waits.”

Well, some filmmaking companions are like God: they see the truth -- and wait.

Having thus contributed to your own invasion -- and, if you’re like me, you are your own Benedict Arnold, every time – you may be tempted (again, if you are like me) to put aside your stacks of notepads, your sketches and your overdue library books, your newspaper clippings, your storyboards, your bloody friend you have been carrying about in your head for perhaps the last 12 years -- Your Project, and just say: “Fuck it. Nobody wants to see a sasquatch movie, anyway. Certainly not one that isn’t so much about sasquatch as it is about being human, about being lonely, about feeling as though you’ve lost family, friends, lovers, your youth -- your whimsy and your hope and your trust -- your faith -- along the way. One that’s about finding some of those things again, or ghosts of them – including a species of Northwest hominid, all but one of whom may have been wiped out by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. Nobody wants to see your ode to 1970s America and creepy documentaries narrated by Peter Graves (The Mysterious Monsters). Nobody wants to see a fucking horror movie in the tradition of Bill Forsyth (Local Hero). Go get drunk or something. Forgetaboutit.”

And so you do. Forget about it, that is. If you’re a bonehead like me you’ll even announce it, perhaps to Said Friend: “I … (just imagine John Cleese in all his clipped, English glory) have decided not to pursue Ghosts of Saint Helens at this time. Thank you.”

Months go by. The leaves fly from the calendar. Perhaps you tinker with an adaptation of a story you found during your research.

Then one day it comes: Said Friend has a great idea. He is on fire; he has never been surer of anything in his life. This thing is going to be huge. Said Friend is going to bust down the walls of Hollywood. He, the Alpha Male, is going to break the back of the opposition, leading us -- the timid and the unsure -- to victory. Said Friend is rabid. A storm is coming; Said Friend’s storm.
Said Friend wants to make a sasquatch movie.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear about this: One cannot expect to copyright, patent, trademark or otherwise own a mere idea. Same goes for titles, and – though I may be going out on a limb here -- giant hominids who’s existence remains un-proven. And yes, though I'd expended a considerable amount of research toward my movie -- one shouldn't even consider it until they've read all the literature; the John Greene catalog, Peter Byrne, Doris Lessing's "The Thoughts of a Near Human", Scott Sander's Bad Man Ballad, Robert Michael Pyle's Where Bigfoot Walks (which, at one point, touchingly describes sasquatch trackers as "men who don't so much want to find bigfoot, as be bigfoot.") -- one still cannot hope for any exclusive right to the material, much less expect it.

But one can, and should, expect friends to respect their borders, their privacy -- their sovereignty over their own brainchildren. No one else has to; it’s a free country, er, sort of. But your friends, if they be true, must.

Because they know what you’ve been working on, whether you’re working on it right now or not. They know that you’ve been daydreaming – and night-dreaming too – this thing into shape, that you’ve been combining this inspiration with that aspiration; and that personal experience with this fabled lore – and overall trying to organize chaos into something which, hopefully, not only entertains but works for you on some personal level. Something which may, if you keep revising and polishing and working it over, and if you’re lucky – gulp -- touch the universal.

They know this. Said Friend knows this. But he’s going to sell a sasquatch movie, by god. And you need to just let go of your ego and “go along for the ride.” You don’t ask Said Friend: “Er, if it’s not about ego, why don’t we just produce my Ghosts of Saint Helens? I’ve only been developing it off and on for over a decade.” You don’t say: “Ah, now come on, bud, you know that’s not cool.” You don’t say what you really need to say, because you value Said Friend’s friendship, and you admire his determination, and your fate really does seem to be tied up with his more often than not, and you just don’t know how to tell him that that’s your girlfriend and you’re not interested in a threesome.

And here, if you are like me, is your darkest hour. Here is your night in Gethsemane. For, if Said Friend, who is more motivated than you, who is a better salesman than you, who works faster than you and who will stop at nothing to get that big budget unlike you (a budget you just might want to be a part of, considering that it was, er, your project once?) is going to make Said Sasquatch Movie, well, you’ve got just one option left.

Collaboration.

I mean, really, that’s your option. This is microcinema, gang, not the big leagues. Whatever project is being made by whomever, the whole gang’s going to be in on it, and nobody wants to do the same thing twice. Now, you can let Said Friend make his movie and still do yours at a much later date, but, sheesh, what the hell is the point in that? So Said Friend can give you one of his patented smirks when some 15-year-old Internet critic accuses you of being un-original?

Is filmmaking tough on friendships? I dunno. It doesn’t have to be. But collaborations can be hell, that’s for sure. Especially if you feel – rightly or wrongly – that you’ve been forced into it.

Here is where we end up selling the farm. We, the Rogue Male, as opposed to the Alpha. See, I had envisioned my sasquatch as what the late professor and part-time cryptozoologist Grover Krantz called a “rogue male”. That is, a solitary bigfoot (Krantz believed the monster to be a species of Gigantopithecus blacki, which roamed southeast Asia some 400,000 years ago and may have crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America) who is the last of his kind and is searching for a clan of like-animals; a clan, unfortunately, he will never find. I envisioned him as a wanderer and a moon-gazer, a sentient creature burdened with the ultimate loneliness. A creature that, after terrifying the hell out of an RV full of searchers, ends up revealing himself to be more evolved than anyone had ever imagined. A creature who’s learned fire, and who’s cave is adorned with primitive frescos.

In short, a creature that feels a lot like the protagonist, and yes, a little like the author … at the time. It wasn’t going to be some grand statement; I wasn’t trying to express myself. If your sole goal is to express yourself, start a diary, and leave filmmaking to people who want to tell great stories (filmmaking is tough; poets need not apply). I only knew that I felt comfortable with those characters (including a big Indian guy who was about as svelte as Rush Limbaugh and played against every stereotype imaginable) and the situations I’d put them in, and that eventually they’d start to walk and talk on their own. And I felt comfortable with my lone sasquatch, Atatilla – after an Indian legend. I envisioned him as something not so different from Rick Baker’s King Kong (yes, a lot smaller) -- badass yet bedroom-eyed.

But the thing with collaboration is that your unique vision goes in one end, intact, but comes out the other – transformed. Your rogue male becomes an alpha. And that’s a whole different animal. Said Friend’s animal. And what you end up with is two very different primates occupying the same clan (though usually the rogue is invading the alpha's territory, not the other way around). What you end up with is two very different philosophies butting heads. And there’s bound to be some blood.

How do you tell Said Friend, for example, that -- in your opinion – part of his current approach is trite at best and offensive at worst? How do you tell him that parts of it risk squandering all the mystery -- all the terror -- inherent in the sasquatch phenomenon? How do you tell him that Dog Soldiers and Sasquatch have already been made, and that little will be gained by combining them; i.e., swapping monsters?

Above all, how the hell do you tell him that, while you are charmed by his devotion to your evolved bigfoot, Ewoks were not what you had in mind?

Your friend just might take issue and lob what he thinks are subtle barbs at you on a filmmaking website.

Because they’re assuming that you think like they do, and that you’re as driven by ego as they are.

It’s a conundrum, and it leads to a kind of paralysis. It’s the age old question of choosing between two goods: Do I tough it out myself, knowing that without Said Friend’s near pathological drive nothing may ever come of it? Or do I take the plunge, knowing I’ve lost my girl right there because Said Friend’s ego and temper will make a true collaboration impossible?
Ah, hell. If you’re like me, you’re so beaten down by life anyway that you’ll take the plunge. I mean, you’ll really take the plunge: you’ll congratulate Said Friend on his panache and bluster, you’ll assure him that it’s about time someone made a rip-roarin’ sasquatch movie, you’ll offer your support, your 12 years of research and development, your texts and subtexts, your dramatic defining moments, your title – hell, you’ll insist on the title. In short, you’ll do and say all those things Said Friend maybe should have said so many years ago, during so many endless conversations, when you talked and talked your vision away, and he believed in it even if you did not.

You want to make movies, by god, and Said Friend does have a knack for making things happen. And now you’re in the back seat of a “SAID FRIEND and you” production. Now your razed temple has been rebuilt, but in someone else's image.

Now your sasquatch is an Alpha Male, which really is a fucking line of clothing.

And you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Look, I’ve gone on and on elsewhere about how much I admire and respect Said Friend. Nothing has changed since then. I may have introduced him to this filmmaking thing, and I’ve taught him a good deal over the years (as he has taught me, for sure), and I know I’ve inspired and influenced him, but at the end of the day -- Said Friend stands or falls by his own wits. His determination, his adaptability, and his talent have carried him far. They will carry him further. Believe me: one does not underestimate Said Friend. Because he'll prove you wrong -- er -- almost every time.

It should also be noted that I truly love Said Friend, though not, of course, in a Biblical sense. And I believe this feeling to be reciprocated. Moreover, as irritating as Said Friend can be in certain categories -- he’s been one helluvu a true friend in others. And there's more: If Said Friend wasn’t an Alpha, for example, there may never have been a completed Shadows in the Garden, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be in Monstersdotcom.

Finally, I think much of Said Friend’s treatment of what we are now both calling Ghosts of Saint Helens is excellent (though it may owe a bit much to Frankenheimer's Prophecy, a favorite, admittedly, to both of us). We’ll play it by ear. See how it goes. I’m damn sure going to have some input, I’ll tell you that.

That said, I’ve a few things to say about we rogues. I’ve got a few answers for Said Friend and anyone else who thinks they are always right, all the time. These are just non-specific responses to various comments, quips, barbs, and accusations leveled at me over time by Said Friend and others.

You’ll pardon me if this all seems a bit scatter shot.

My trigger finger’s been itching for a long while.

Ego.

People, mostly alpha males, who over-use this word are usually just projecting. They’re projecting onto others what is already in their hearts. In fact, they are the ones in a state of competition, in what Hobbes called a state of “every man against every other man for limited resources.” Oftentimes their ambition involves an active suppression or censorship of other's ideas and accomplishments.

Why? Because those just might make a shadow big enough for them to get lost in. And that pisses alpha males off. It’s all about them, baby.

Listen: You can be great without having to be greater than someone else.

Vision.

“Vision” sounds so pretentious and vainglorious, but all vision is is what you see, either with your own two eyes or your mind’s eye or your fifty fucking eyes. That’s all. And we all see things differently. Half the fun of watching a great director’s work is seeing the world through their eyes for awhile. It's not about one seeing better than the other, it's about seeing things differently. It's about a singular, unified vision which can take you to the strangest new world of all, another human soul’s perception.

Self-Doubt.

Hey, when it comes to being an artist, self-doubt is part and parcel to the territory. Sauce for the Goose. I don’t think you can be an artist without having self-doubt. I don’t think you should be an artist without having self-doubt. And you sure as hell will never be a great artist without having some measure of it; that’s what propels an artist to greatness. It’s what makes you try harder – not some demonic, fated obsession which came to you in a fevered dream, like Hitler, that you’ve just got to be better than everyone else.

Self-doubt lies at the very core of who we are – as artists and as human beings. An artist who never doubts himself is no artist at all. He’s a motivational speaker.

Cynicism.

We rogue males may rail at the world for its indifference, and we may seem cynical, but in fact it's a false cynicism, and it stems from the same source as all cynicism. Like poor Ivan Karamazov, we’re just mad as hell about the unfairness of things and furious that things can’t be better. Old Ivan is really just a bleeding humanist. In the end, false cynicism stems from an eternal hope and optimism – we know it is all useless and yet fight anyway!

True cynics -- whose ranks do not include Said Friend -- don’t care either way. They live, they make some flicks (usually bad ones), and they die. They never question the meaning of their, er, product, no more than they question the meaning of Life (there is none, by the way, but at least I ask). Isn’t that the ultimate cynicism?

Futility. With Grace.

What makes an artist sympathetic is the same thing that makes his or her characters sympathetic. Empathy. Our hours of doubt. It's about rolling that rock up a hill like Sisyphus even though you know it's just gonna roll back down again. It's about doing your best in the face of utter futility.

It isn’t about delusion.

It isn’t about chanting a mantra until it becomes true.

Optimism.

Said Friend would probably say that he stands for optimism while I stand for cynicism. Yet Shadows in the Garden ends on an optimistic note in which the story has gone somewhere, something irreversible has happened, has been accomplished, that can never happen again. Something has been transcended.

By contrast, Said Friend’s short (which is excellent by anyone's standard and probably better than mine), one version of it anyway, ends on a note of complete and total futility. Everything is lost, nothing gained.

Significant? I doubt it. But it’s something to think about, you!

Delay.

Said Friend’s spiel: “So, are you going to wait until you're sixty-years-old to do it?”

Hey, I’m doing it now. I’m thinking it and working it and envisioning it now. All the time. Am I going to wait until I’m sixty to film it?

Yep. If that’s what it takes.

Education.

Sometimes Said Friend and others make fun of my long education. But education means realizing your Big Idea maybe ain’t that big, and has probably been done a thousand times before. Education means knowing that while “So what am I really trying to say here?” is, technically, a rhetorical question, it’s the stupidest one ever uttered.

Collaboration.

Collaboration is, indeed, the sine qua non of filmmaking. But if you’re going to collaborate, and expect others to be thick-skinned, you better fucking grow one, too.

Friendship.

Friends listen and encourage; they don’t plunder. They aren’t carpetbaggers. You are always at liberty to indulge your fancy with friends. Like being able to talk about your work freely, and have it remain your work. Then again, if a friend is inspired by something you said or wrote, and yes, even wants to expand upon it – maybe you should just feel bloody flattered and encourage him (hey, I’m agonizing over these things -- I’m the self doubt guy, remember?).

I think the main thing is when you’re at this point is to remember that you are, first and foremost, friends. The friendship goes on; the work goes on. One way -- or the other.

I placed a phone call to Said Friend before allowing this piece to go forward. It was a nice conversation, and yes, I felt guilty as hell for the things I'd written. And while I was irked a little at his occasional minimizing of my contributions to his -- yes, pretty much his now, it seemed, though I may have read him all wrong -- I was also startled by how many things he'd forgotten, things I'd told him about my ongoing sasquatch project, things he truly believed were his own invention. Hell, I was startled by how much I'd forgotten. Those things in the cave, for example (Indian artifacts in Said Friend's version) -- weren't those the shiny trinkets that, in yours, would connect the protagonist to his past? And this idea of the creature's facial expressions, of his ancient, ancient eyes -- wasn't that how you'd described (and written) Atatilla, when he'd rescued your hero from the chasm? When, staring at him through the rain, your hero finally learns just how wrong he's been about, well, everything?

And it made me wonder about how wrong I might be, fancying Said Friend, even in jest, a bandit. (Said Friend will surely pardon my metaphorizing him with bigfoot, commonly considered an animal. But don't you see, S.F.? That's precisely my point about the Indian/smallpox thing. Sure, it could be powerful. But I suggested it without realizing how offensive it could be!)

And yes, it made me wonder about how many of the things I've been ranting about here were ever on-purpose in Said Friend's mind -- or ever real outside my own.

Hypothetical Reader, I don't know. He is my friend, as I've made abundantly clear. Yet if he is genuinely unaware of what I've perceived over the years as a sort of carpet bagging; or if I am unaware of some delusory condition of my own -- that can only lead to a downer of a conclusion.

Which is that maybe one shouldn't discuss their works-in-progress with friends. Maybe that renders a disservice to you both.

And man, that sucks. For in my friend's own words: If you can't talk to a fellow filmmakers about filmmaking -- whom the hell can you talk to?

Ultimately, it boils down to people having different perceptions and different approaches to the creative process. I'm a private kind of person and my writing technique reflects that. I don't usually see the conception and/or the writing of something as collaborative; such collaborations usually result in a discombobulated mess. I like to save collaboration for where it is always needed most: Production.

In contrast, Said Friend sees everything as collaboration, and always has. I am not making fun of him for this; indeed, it is this very spirit which can make things happen, and often has. It's just that, again, we've got unique approaches.

Above all, once in collaboration, always try to recognize the value of the other's contribution. Equally important, you must try to make him see the value of your own. If you feel, for example (as I do regarding Ghosts of Saint Helens), that the monster needs remain mysterious for as long as possible, say so. If you feel that the aim of the middle act should be to terrify the viewer more than anything else (for we only fear what we do not understand, and understanding needs wait for Act Three, when the mask, so to speak, is torn off -- and we realize things aren't so unfathomable after all), say so. And if you ardently believe that, while the subtext is vital to the overall hegemony of the piece, its denouement must wait until the very end, like a cherry placed atop a summit of cream -- dude, you better say so.

The edit bay will be too late.

I reckon that, in the future, I'll just be more assertive about what's acceptable regarding collaborations and what's not. I reckon I'll be more succinct about which projects I'm willing to donate to the cause, and which ones I want bloody left alone (whether I ever complete them or not). And yes, I'll be extremely careful in what I say.

Again, it isn't about being petty and thwarting someone else. It's about securing a future for your own vision by pre-empting a take-over today.

It's about preventing your vision from becoming a ghost: lost, like mighty Atatilla, in time.

Post Script.

Said friend does not exist. He is a literary device I cooked up in order to unify my thesis. He is not based in whole or in part on any real person, living or dead.

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