PFFFFF PFFF pffffff
That is the sound of futility. More practically, it is the sound of a dead car battery during an attempt to will it into being full of energy, turning my car's engine on, and transforming these two tons of steel, plastic, rubber and carpet that surround me into something that resembles a motor vehicle. Like a toddler who refuses to comply, I keep tugging on its arm, first instructing it to start, then angrily yelling for it to kick into gear, before finally just begging for it to work. My pleas fall on a deaf steering wheel. It sits idle, as it has for the last six months, sequestered in the driveway of my childhood home in suburban New Jersey.
I sit in the driver's seat staring directly ahead at the raised red hood, aware that it's hooked up through a series of wires to my mom's Rav4, like a patient in dire need of a blood transfusion. The Rav is giving all that it can, but the platelets just aren't responding in the patient. Sure, there are some signs that it's working: the digital clock on the radio is showing me just how many minutes are dwindling away from my expected departure, accurately describing how screwed I am. So there's that. Still, in an effort to illicit some sort of miracle, I keep pushing on that key and turning it up, hoping for a response. It answers the call:
PFFFFF PFFF pffffff
…As I mutter obscenities.
I don't know why I should think that a car that's been neglected for six months would just up and start, like it was a dormant bouncy-ball and not a highly intricate and delicate miracle of combustion. Even that is selling the vehicle short. It was in my family when I made the decision to go into the noble profession of filmmaking, it was mine when I wrote my first screenplay, and it's been there through the litany of one-acts, sketches, plays, and screen plays that have been written in the meantime. Everything I've created has run concurrently with the confines of that 2000 Ford Explorer.
I moved to New York City and left the car (and the insurance costs, and the gas prices...) back in New Jersey. One of the main reasons the move occurred was to further my ability to get a job in The Industry, as people are wont to call it. After some unfruitful years directly out of college ("Theatre is practically the same as film, anyway!"), I had recently taken a position as an intern with a management / production company. Sharing the same menial duties with a 19-year-old took on a new sense of pride when one of the guys at the company mentioned that they were investing some talent, time, and money into a feature to be shot near the early fall. With that goal on the horizon, I wrote coverage, delivered packages, and went on coffee runs all in the hope that they would actually offer me a job. One day, I lived out the intern dream and did land a job (or two) for filming.
I could finally stop reading other people's screenplays and focus on making one piece of writing into reality. Imagine that. Me, making movies.
One of the big contingencies was the use of my nearly-on-blocks car. Considering the budget for the feature (8th-round-of-limbo low), costs were cut where ever, so they decided to bring my car back to life, pay for its insurance, and use the hell out of it. It would essentially be a production vehicle, used by anyone on hand to make drives, gather props, set dressings, shotguns and bring them to set, go on battery runs…whatever was needed to keep the machine rolling. It was my most valuable contribution thus far to the filmmaking process, and thus far as going as well as my film career up until then.
Ever since graduation, I had been writing shorts and things like that, but never thought of really recording them. If someone had an available HandiCam, sure, throw some light on some stuff and hit the red button and "action." The last time I wrote and filmed something was the pilot for a web series that was shot a year ago. That's also our current progress report. So here I am, ready to get in to the business and drive into Brooklyn to help gather the Director of Photography's supplies…and the battery is dead. I'm out of the business before I ever got a shot. Luckily, my dad, who has supported me throughout, continues that effort buy driving me to get a new battery, installing it, and making me feel both prepared and inadequate, a theme that will follow the next few weeks.
The entire experience was a bit surreal. There were about twenty-five of us, all holed up in three quaint residences in rural New Hampshire, shooting a movie almost exclusively in the woods, almost exclusively at night. If that isn't daunting enough (coupled with an 18' snow storm in late October), what struck me immediately is that:
1) most of the crew seems young, and some even seem younger than myself at the tender age of 25
2) they're very talented
3) also, they're very experienced
4) I have very little clue what the fuck I'm doing here
These points came up, time and time again, as I stumbled through the myriad disparate jobs I was assigned throughout production. Of all those jobs, I never had one I can truly focus on and work at to improve upon; I was merely spinning whatever plates I was told looked wobbly. From here, massive insecurity was assured. What was I doing here amongst these professionals? What joke am I playing on the rest of these guys who are trying to make yet another movie? What could I possibly contribute that is on par with their work?
It plagued me throughout the shoot. Every time I was lost in the woods with a portable generator, or trying to get the fog just right as with a leaf blower attached to my back as someone yells into my in-ear radio, or driving talent around at five A.M. so they can get back to New York for the end of our shoot, I just kept thinking to myself, "how the hell am I actually helping anyone here?" In one famous bit, the 1st AD sat me down and earnestly said, "I really wish you weren't the Properties Master," a sentiment I whole-heartedly shared in the moment. Every day, I didn't try to triumph, I just tried to not fail. It was, in all ways, a mediocre phenomena.
By the time the shoot ended three weeks later, I packed up my duffel bag to return to
civilization New York City, and it dawned on me that there really wasn't anything I did well. For the first time in my life, really, I didn't excel at squat. The dream of making movies seemed as dead as the car battery. Neglected, expected to magically work after not being taken care of for an extended period of time, and coming up woefully short from the hoped-for result.
Then I thought of the fun I had with the crew. How I'd try to give the script girl a funny line whenever the cold got to her, causing her legs to churn as she stood, talking the insanity out of the eyes of the production coordinator as she tried to find a local place that sold theatrical sandbags, or the conversations I'd have with the 2nd AD about anything that didn't lead us back to the fact that we were standing in snow for the sixth consecutive hour and that my Timberland boots are essentially brown, leather sponges. The simple joy of making my co-workers smile, laugh, think, whatever. If I had a craft, naturally, it would be there, where I have the space to come up with something to entertain these poor people who were giving so much and still coming up a bit empty after a hard day's work.
The experience went to show me that my filmmaking battery was dead. So many of the smallest things to get work started I had either forgotten or never really learned, which kept the motor from truly kicking in. The shoot itself acted like a nice jump: it got the engine churning, the fuel burning. But what I didn't expect is the obvious: my engine moves on words, thoughts, ideas, scenes, scenarios, all brought about on the page. Essentially, I worked on a movie to realize just how much I need to make a movie, and how little I had done to make that dream come true. I didn't want to make movies when I was a kid, I wanted to make my movies, to share how I see the world from the cracked window I peer out of. And then, as it all came together, I realized that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I wouldn't change it for anything.
Except I'd like to get some feeling back in the tips of my toes and fingers. Don't think that's too selfish, really.