Adventures in Filmmaking: Through the Lens

About twelve years ago, I was having lunch with a friend and I mentioned that I wanted to be a director. At the time, I was taking screenwriting courses at UCLA Extension and had completed my first script, Bless the Mic. Film school seemed like the natural progression in my quest to create compelling, entertaining and memorable vehicles for people of color to star in.

The word “director” hung in the afternoon air, mingling with the laughter of the UCLA students dining at a nearby table and my friend’s cigarette smoke. It was the first time I had mentioned the desire to direct, and I was as surprised by this pronouncement as she was. My friend took another puff of her elegant cigarette, shook her head and mused that film school meant “years and years of extended poverty.”

After a few moments of hesitation, I agreed with her. After all, I was still saddled with student loan debt from undergrad and, newly arrived in L.A., was struggling to pay the bills on a secretary’s salary. Directing wasn’t my heart’s desire, like writing, merely a small bubbling of possibility in my chest. The conversation shifted back to our favorite topic — hatred for our day job — and then my friend stubbed out her cigarette and my burgeoning dreams in one motion.

This is why you can’t share your dreams with everyone.

Flash forward eleven years. I’ve just arrived back in La La Land from a cross-country tour to promote my book Escape from Beckyville. It’s March 2012. I’m moping around my apartment in my daily uniform of a scarf and stained robe. I’m starting to feel this agitation in my chest, the spiritual roiling I always feel when it seems my dreams are trapped beneath a frozen sea of frustration, struggling to break free. But one night I get a crackle of inspiration. I sit down and write three episodes of a web series based on my book. I start to feel hopeful again. A web series is just what I need to combat the failure I see all around me.

Eager to put this plan in motion, I approach a friend about directing the first webisode. He’s intrigued by the project and says he should be available to shoot in about a month. A month later, as my luck would have it, he gets whisked away on another project and won’t have any free time for the rest of the year. I meet with another director friend to discuss my web series. To my disappointment, he tells me he’d love to help but has other commitments. I’m given the contact info of someone who can DP my project. I set up a lunch meeting with her and quickly learn that I can’t afford her services. I attempt some half-hearted online fundraising for my web series and a stranger sends me $20 via PayPal. Another day, another meeting with another director friend, and another serving of dashed hopes. Every night, I climb into bed, trying to soothe the swirling in my chest.

Another year passes. It’s September 2013. I’m dayjobbing, trying to find ways to keep my dreams afloat. One night, I’m on my laptop looking through old files. While perusing snippets of poetry I wrote many moons ago and unfinished short stories, I come across a script I wrote the previous year, One Last Request. It wasn’t an episode from the Escape from Beckyville web series, just something I penned when I was in a dark place. If I wrote a script for every time I was in a dark place, I’d be a one-woman WGA.

It occurs to me that maybe I should try to direct One Last Request. It’s only six pages long, it doesn’t have many locations and only three characters. It doesn’t cross my mind that I haven’t been to film school, haven’t taken any directing courses and don’t know the difference between panning and tracking. If I can pull a team of professionals together — from the producer to the director of photography to the casting director to the actors — all I have to do is show up on the set and yell “Action!” and “Cut!”

I know this is an extreme oversimplification of the film-making process, but I have to frame this enormous decision in a way that makes sense to my heart. It’s how I got up the nerve to drive 3,000 miles cross country to promote Escape from Beckyville. I never viewed my book tour as a major undertaking that would require a ton of time, money, negotiating, haggling, pleading, sleepless nights, fear of failure and rejection. I framed the journey as a road trip with my mother, Lola. We were simply taking a scenic tour of these United States and doing some much-needed mother-daughter bonding along the way. I just happened to be transporting 32 boxes of books in the back of my van that I desperately needed to sell to survive.

Desperation should never be the impetus for a dream. When I re-read One Last Request, there wasn’t any anxiety about this new adventure. I felt giddy, like a teen with a shiny new driver’s license, car keys and miles of open road. I knew I could direct the short film. Not because I possess any genius or super powers, but because I had to. I’d spent a year cajoling other people to direct my web series, and door after door after door closed in my face. Finally, a window was opening.

duparAs soon as I made the decision to direct, things began to quickly fall into place. I created a workback schedule from the date I wanted the short film to go live and all the steps I thought I needed in between. Turns out, I missed quite a few steps in my schedule, but such is life. I reached out to Mo, a dear friend from grad school, and talked to him about producing. The premise of the short film piqued his interest and he told me he was on board. We met up one night at Du-Par’s in Studio City to discuss logistics. I was fine with hashing out the details over a chai tea latte at Starbucks, but Mo convinced me that industry folks often sat in the well-worn booths at Du-Par’s, brokering deals, and that image and energy appealed to me. Très L.A. Of course, when we arrived at the 60-year-old bakery/coffee shop, there were only two or three couples huddled over their lattes and a few servers joking around behind the counter. Not a deal maker in sight.

Once the server brought our drinks — coffee for Mo; hot chocolate for me — we went over the script, trying to get to the heart of the story. One Last Request is a short film about a broken young woman named Lisa who is searching for someone to kill her. She contracts a hit man, Frank, who becomes torn between his need to get paid and his attraction to her. Yeah, it’s morbid. Ever since I was eight or nine years old, reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels, I’ve been seduced by darkness, fascinated by the unsavory side of human nature.

But I digress …

Mo has directed many projects, and I admire his hustle, his dedication to his craft. He’s ultra pragmatic and I’m an eternal optimist (when I’m not submerged in sorrow). We argue for a good half hour about what’s at stake — not just in the story but for my emotional health. He’s protective of me like a brother and he doesn’t want me to get my hopes up for my directorial debut. He reminds me that I’m providing content for which there is no demand. Yet.

“But I’m doing the Lord’s work,” I protest. “I’m creating opportunities for people of color to star in meaningful, provocative films. I’m subverting tropes of black womanhood — Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire —”

“But nobody asked for it,” he says, sipping his coffee.

As much as it hurts to think about, Mo does have a point. Even though we’re friends, he doesn’t coddle me. He wants me to shine, but not get burned. He suggests that I check out a few books on visual grammar. There’s a “talking-head” scene in One Last Request that goes on for a few minutes, and he feels it could get boring if I don’t incorporate techniques to keep the viewer engaged. I’m taking copious notes like a freshman on the first day of class. It’s September 18, and according to my workback schedule, we shoot on October 26 and 27. Weekend warrior style. I have only 38 days to “get up to speed” as a director. In addition to taking a crash course in film making, I have to secure an investor, scout and lock in locations, find a director of photography, draft and post casting notices, hold auditions, confirm actors, create story boards and a shot list. No problem. I’m simply taking a cross-country road trip, navigating new towns and meandering roads, cruising past the city limits of my comfort zone.

The too-loud laughter of a woman in the adjoining booth tilts me out of my daydreams. I was meant to do this, to go on this adventure, and I’m well-equipped for the journey. Mo and I make a plan to meet in a few weeks to scout locations. We’re thinking Griffith Park because it’s charming, brimming with greenery and will provide the perfect backdrop for discussions of death. Besides, we don’t need a permit to film there, or so Mo says.

The brisk Valley air embraces us as we head to my van. I tell my grad school homie that I’ll work on another draft of the script and create a beat sheet to help streamline his producing duties. The last time Mo and I collaborated on a project, he was a directing a trailer that I had written. Now the roles have shifted.

It feels good to go on another adventure, to probe the possibilities of directing. There’s a paradigm shift at work in my mind as well. Just as many girls are told that they can’t excel at math or science, and so they live to those labels, for years, I’d been telling myself I didn’t have what it takes to be a director because I didn’t possess the acumen for it. Didn’t have the connections. Not to mention, I was broke and frightened by the “years and years of extended poverty” that my friend warned was the occupational hazard of a directing career. But one thing she neglected to mention that day over lunch is that spiritual poverty occurs when we fail to pursue our dreams. I’d rather follow my heart and go bankrupt than live a life of stability and mediocrity.

I’m writing this at 6:00 in the a.m. and I’ve just viewed the second rough cut of One Last Request that my editor emailed me. We’re playing around with the title sequence, trying to do something interesting and artistic. The credits roll. Written and Directed by Nicole D. Sconiers. I keep replaying the title sequence, smiling to myself. I’ll blog about other details of the film-making journey in a future post, but for now, this is enough. This is a ten-minute shaft of sunlight that I offer to the frozen sea of frustration in my chest. I feel the waters rising, eddying, swirling, with hope.

cross-posted at nicolesconiers.com/blog

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