Filmmaker Michael DiBiasio on How “Giving Up” Led Us To Our First Feature
I am very happy to introduce this guest post by peers and filmmaker Michael DiBiasio, who you might already know via his twitter and/or his excellent blog. I discovered Michael DiBiasio’s universe thanks to the one and only Edwin Nieves (if that sentence sounds familiar, it’s normal!), and I was immediately drawn by his sincerity while sharing the good and the bad in his journey to create, live and strive as an indie filmmaker and a human being.
So when I discovered he was launching a Seed & Spark campaign to help make his first feature film, I had to ask him to share his story with mentorless’ readers, and I’m really glad he said yes.
Below is a guest post by one of us, one who has been working hard for many years to reach a level where he would feel comfortable asking for our help to make his first feature happen. I have no doubt you will learn from his story and will probably relate too. I know I did. (cue: “But I was getting older, I was “supposed” to make a feature film”.)
How “Giving Up” Led Us To Our First Feature
About two years ago, my wife (and co-producer) and I started developing our first feature film. Last week, we launched a crowdfunding campaign on Seed and Spark — to help pay for the minimum of what we and our team would need to make our first feature film, The Videoblogs.
They are not the same projects.
I’m not going to spend an inordinate amount of time hashing out the details of what happened, except to say that it was exactly what needed to happen. But I think some points are worth reflecting upon.
In general though, the story of how this project came about is really one of patience, perseverance, hard work, experimentation, doggedness — all the things that I have come to believe indie filmmakers in particular have to have in increasingly large supply in order to attempt to sustain a career. That last part is important, too. This is more of a conversation for another day, when we’re further along and I have lessons (and statistics) I can share, but it’s worth pointing out that while The Videoblogs is a film (with added goals and aspects to follow), it’s also an experiment in sourcing out a new, sustainable model for keeping a career going while remaining truly indie and/or seeking out a jump to another level.
The initial project we were trying to set up two years ago was intentionally written to be small. I set most of it in a version of our apartment. There were only three main characters, strategically surrounded by dynamic day players. In addition to the apartment, we needed only a few additional locations.
But there was a car scene. Despite my best efforts, after following the story to where it had to go, some of the locations we ended up with were going to be hard to get for free or for cheap (how I am used to working, at this stage in my career). As strategic as the script was, the day players were crucial, and needed to be carefully cast. And we’d need to rehearse. The script was wordy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in transition as a writer beginning with that project. I was ready to let go and just be me (wordy, like a novelist) but the ambition of that script, as opposed to the script for The Videoblogs, showed some growing pains…in terms of how realistically doable it was going to prove to become as that hallowed “first feature”.
In the end, after much anxiety and a related dip into depression — I called it off. Beyond all of the above, on a practical level, if I had chosen to stick with that project I would have faced one or more of three outcomes:
- Years spent chasing money that doesn’t seem to be there very often, anymore, for indie films of the sort I make
- Relatedly, a ruined, dispassionate project, overcome by resentment
- A failed crowdfunding campaign for a minimum amount needed for the film that was much greater than what I could have raised at that time.
Also, a few years ago, I was still struggling a bit personally. I did not feel up to fighting to solve the above three challenges, at least not head-on (hence the depression). For a while, I did not know what to do. Apart from all this, it had been too long since I made a film (four years). But I had made a short and then a featurette. I was getting older. I was “supposed” to be making a feature.
In the end, I got lucky before I got smart. The idea for what would become my new short film, Multiverse, came to me. I couldn’t ignore it or fight it, despite the fact that I “didn’t want” to make another short (which was an excuse based on fear more than any rational observation).
Relatedly, at that time, I started (thankfully) separating my work from my self-worth, which became more of a priority than ever before. I got help with the anxiety and the depression. I stopped making excuses and tried working smarter, not harder. I asked for help and trusted people, beginning and continuing on through the production of Multiverse, which, as I have written, sort of changed my life.
Instead of focusing of what I rigidly felt I needed to do or should do, I started listening to what was possible, started embracing the indie lifestyle, truly began taking stock of what I had, and worked to maximize that. The curse of the filmmaker identity is that we task ourselves with chasing the impossibility of perfection. The cruelty of doing this independently is that the challenge of acceptably failing at this in the eyes of the audience is made razor sharp by limitations of budget and time.
One thing we can all do to make our chances better is to write a ton of pages — before then putting most of them in the garbage or in a closet. I had reached a new place in my writing by the time Multiverseoccurred to me one day. I felt as sudden sense of renewed energy, even as I drifted permanently away from my 20s and towards the “dreaded” 30s (not dreadful). My wife, an extremely talented actor who I work very well with, was making her own progress in life and as a creative talent. I had (still have) a stable but, in terms of schedule, manageable day job that allowed me to squeak out work on lunch breaks and on nights and weekends — if/when I take the opportunity.
And I had Multiverse. Which, even before we shot it and even as post contributed beyond a year due to our limited budget and ambitious visual effects, was shaping up (in my opinion) as a solid film that was at least unique.
In short, despite how ludicrous it would have sounded to the beaten and unprepared version of myself who stumbled into the situation years ago — I sensed an opportunity to do something bigger.
That’s when the idea for The Videoblogs occurred to me as suddenly and as simply as the one for Multiverse had.
One detail I have left out until now is that two years ago I also launched an early, experiential version of my web site. This was a result of two things: finally being ready to commit to an ongoing dialogue and feeling compelled in an overwhelming way to DO SOMETHING to raise awareness about what to me seemed to me to be a confused and pained American popular culture that was facing moral and spiritual exhaustion, and which had and has been intellectually manipulated by the “powers that be” beyond modern precedent.
While this isn’t the space to go too far into that second point, I think we can at least agree (whoever we are) that the last few decades have been filled with their share of injustices and, hopefully, growing pains. Even what I was doing at the start, now, seems insufficient. There’s enough anger and “ideas about how things should be” being thrown about by the media and across the web. What I felt I needed to do, even if I didn’t understand exactly how I was going to do it, was to take action and do something different.
To me, urgent action starts with a dialogue about the most important thing in the world beyond (but possible also including) food, water, shelter and physical well-being — our mental health. Both individual and collective. I am no longer so brazen or so misguided as to believe I know the first thing about how to make life better for people. It’s not even a responsibility any of us should take on, alone. But I’m starting to learn that what we really need to do is talk, and get together and work together. In today’s hyper-connected, superficially specialized world, this can only happen by decision or chance, in my opinion.
The Videoblogs came about, on both a practical and a creative story level, from a taking of inventory. Here’s what I started with:
- A good enough writer (me, after years burning through pages)
- A good enough director (me, after years spent muddling through self-teaching)
- A few years spent pondering and sourcing out what I felt compelled to write about
- A very talented lead actor (Rebecca)
- A small but wonderfully loyal network of collaborators and supporters
- The bare minimum of equipment needed to shoot a low-budget film, guerrilla style (package researched heavily, charged to credit cards, paid off by freelance work)
- The experience of making Multiverse, in terms of realizing what direction I had to go in for now (digging deep into mental health, social anomie, and how technology might be able to serve as a bridge back to greater community)
- The experience of making Multiverse and other shorts, in terms of learning how to maximize available (usually local) resources to amp up production value
- The benefit of having barely succeeded in making a featurette (appropriately double the work of a short and half as much as a feature)
- Time (if and when I made the commitment, and if/when I planned accordingly)
While the work has been exhausting, like it always is, it has been manageable. The above list, to me, is a relative wealth of resources. It was hard won, but I had to do it.
Some quick facts about that:
- The script for The Videoblogs took me about three months to write, in terms of whittling down a draft that I could show people. It took about seven years and six feature scripts to get to the point where I could write a solid draft in that time, AND develop as a storyteller to the point that I knew the film should get made. Before that, there was always a little doubt.
- Multiverse took almost two years to complete. This never frustrated me, because there was nothing I could do about it. People worked for free, in their spare time, to help me make and complete it. I did the same, obviously. But when faced with the choice between trying to take on additional freelance work to pay my collaborators (which was an option) or using that wait time to write and write and write — I (wisely, I think) choose the second route.
- With The Videoblogs, we are seeking to bump up against conventional wisdom by producing something of quality “quickly” and cheaply. In relative terms. Producer Chad Troutwine made a great point about this in a recent Seed&Spark #FilmCurious Twitter chat. While a film is art, it’s also by its tactile nature a product. For us to adapt to today’s environment, it’s arguably better to view a production as (in Chad’s words) a Minimum Viable Product. In short: get max results with minimal resources and then, in tech speak, iterate. On this point, while I plan to go into more detail later on this — our goal with this production is to develop, produce, and pre-distribute the film to our Seed&Spark supporters within about six months. After that, who knows? Maybe distribution will grow, maybe we’ll move on with “Phase 2″ and then the next thing.
After all that, it was about re-writing and development. I kept in constant contact with Rebecca, who in addition to her other talents has a natural feel for when it’s time to move on something and/or when it needs additional attention. I shared the script with trusted peers I have been in touch with throughout the years and I worked through drafts. I tried to accept the limitations of our budget and goal before then pushing up against the ceiling of each one. We’re still doing that, every day, as we head towards production.
Really, though, after all of the above, it’s still about just jumping in and giving it a try. Ultimately, while the work and the planning helps — this process is about faith. Sometimes it becomes very easy to forget it in the isolation that sometimes comes with creating something, but without the “risk” of entrusting ourselves and our work to the audience and to our friends and family and supporters — what can be gained? For anyone?
And that sort of ends it. We’re making The Videoblogs because we felt so compelled. But it’s only going to get made and, hopefully, eventually, get seen — by the efforts of the audience.
I think we could use a return to that sort of honesty in filmmaking. It coincides with one of the main messages we are trying to engage upon with our films: that if we want things to get better, we need to reach out and help each other.
Oh, and, finally, if you haven’t yet had a chance to watch Multiverse, check it out and let us know what you think!