As a young filmmaker, I understand the impulse to apotheosize our idols as singular forces of genius and to commit ourselves to self-reliant perfection in their footsteps. We work with a tally card in our back pocket, ticking off all the boxes we hope will help us rocket to the height of our heroes, tiptoeing around the landmines of failure in a hope it’s a straight line to the top. But even the greatest auteurs receive help—in fact, that why they’re greats, because they knew how to wield help.
When we look at the likes of Lynch, the Coens, and Tarantino, we see beautiful flowers comprising a display in the florist’s window, and we try to produce beautiful flowers of our own, fully-formed and ready for the limelight—exactly like them. What we don’t see is the soil, sun, water and struggle for life that sowed the seed of their greatness and cultivated it to maturity. And when we zero in on result rather than process, where all the magic truly happens, we undermine ourselves. All we need to focus on as nascent writers/directors is being a seed and finding the right environment to sprout and blossom. And guess what? If you’re vigilant and persistent, the best resources can come from unexpected places. Here’s how I found my sun, water, and soil while making “Suspicion.”
Like I’ve often said, a tight script is a prerequisite to a fine film, and the single most influential shaper of “Suspicion” was my executive producer, Jesse. Several months before writing “Suspicion,” Jesse guested in a TV writing seminar I was taking, and at the end of the class, he encouraged us to ask our professor for his email and be in touch. Having just completed a short script for a filmmaking course, I decided to drop him a line and to attach it. A week later, I was surprised to see a reply from Jesse in my inbox that included a generous paragraph of feedback—the takeaway of which was perfectly appropriate: the script needed a lot of work. (And it still does.) But having workshopped it for weeks and being in the honeymoon phase with the current draft, I thought he simply didn’t “get” my Sorrentino-knockoff artiness and moved along with the project.
But as I dipped my toe into preproduction on this short, I realized, craft aside, it was way too ambitious for a first-time filmmaker with limited financial and technical resources. So I went back to the drawing board and conceived of something with one location, minimal actors, and low expenses—“Suspicion.” And several weeks after finishing the script, a random thought popped into my head: For shits and giggles, send the script to Jesse. The next day, he email me back: “Yo. You got time to talk on the phone about this?” And on that call, he gave me a small education in mining the untapped potential of the short’s premise and taking it to the next level. And this time, things finally clicked for me. (Thank goodness.) Over the new few script conferences, Jesse morphed into the executive producer of the project, and nourished my deficient kernel into something artistically viable.
Dedicating so much time to a script near the end of preproduction is a luxury, and it would have been impossible without the space an excellent producer and cinematographer provide. As a cinematic newbie on a campus where the film community was small and already spread thin, I had to look elsewhere for collaborators on “Suspicion.” So, at the suggestion of my teacher, I reached out to professors at several NYC graduate film schools asking if they could post a blurb about my project on the program’s listserv. An NYU faculty member lent me a hand in making an announcement, and within two days I had received a couple bites. One came from Arlen, a graduate alumnus based in LA who ended up flying cross country to shoot the short. The other response came from a NY-based DP who, while unavailable, introduced me to Jessica—a new, hungry producer with whom I instantly hit it off. For me, it was a triumvirate made in heaven. Arlen’s command of production and composition, and Jessica’s skill at location scouting, recruiting, and organization created the perfect environment to thrive, one that allowed me to focus on the actors and retooling the script, one full of water and sun.
And that’s how I believed the process to work. With each film a writer/director makes, his or her flower grows, until one day, it either catches the eye of a florist, who plucks it from the earth and shares it with the world, or it remains in the ground and continues to vie for attention. So when “Suspicion” was all said and done, like many young filmmakers, I was left with a dingy sprout. The issue is: who cares about a sprout? Well, a lot of entities do—especially film festivals. They thrive on finding promising sprouts and infusing them with Miracle-Gro. And of course, that’s the general appeal—what seed doesn’t appreciate compost?
My acceptance into the Austin Film Festival and my inclusion on its 25 Screenwriters to Watch list has been just that: fuel to grow more quickly, both as a professional and a human being. Besides my newfound modicum of credibility, the most precious thing AFF has afforded me is a community of like-minded writers and filmmakers, a community that champions its members work and commits itself to figuring things out together. A lot of organizations claim to be a family; in my experience, AFF is the only community that’s ever delivered. And without that family, I’m certain every gig that’s followed my attending the festival—from script consulting for a James Patterson adaption to an upcoming internship at Heyday Films—would never have happened. Whether it’s the savvy use of social media, sending cold emails to those you admire, a fellowship, or a film festival selection: young filmmakers, find your fertilizer. Your sun, water, and soil too. They’re concentrated doses of help, and everyone—even the greats—are the product of help.