Filmmaking: You Shall Know Your Velocity
In an amazing coincidence, the kind that Western spiritual folk with an Eastern bent might ascribe to a bolt of Taoist synergy, I received a direct message on Facebook last week from a gay Québécois writer-director friend just as I was being overwhelmed on both my Facebook and Twitter feeds about how amazing twenty-five-year-old gay Québécois writer-director Xavier Dolan’s Mommy is. Within an hour of the screening, it was the frontrunner for this year’s Palme D’Or.
Not being a festival groupie, not being interested at all in film festivals, in fact, I’d never heard of Dolan. A quick dip into Lord Google the Almighty and Omniscient revealed that Dolan was a Cannes favorite already: he won three awards at the sidebar Director’s Fortnight in 2009 with his debut J’Ai Tué Ma Mère. He was twenty. His other films had also played every year since at the festival. With such precedent, the members of the jury were likely to smile kindly on jeune Dolan and indeed award him the top prize.
An instant twang of envy over Dolan’s success shot unpleasantly from my head to my stomach, utterly ignoring my grinding ambivalence about film festivals, Cannes and Sundance in particular. More than my decidedly pussy-bitch hatred of competition, my ambivalence has to do with the seething crowds and the uncomfortable Game of Thrones clash of egos and ambition among my peers; as a result, I tend to drink way more than usual at big festivals and generally have a mediocre time. (But not at Berlin. Love the Berlinale.)
I see it as a horrible sign of weakness and lack of generosity, but in fact envy is distinct from jealousy, considered perfectly healthy. As Psychology Today puts it, “Envy occurs when we lack a desired attribute enjoyed by another. Jealousy occurs when something we already possess (usually a special relationship) is threatened by a third person.” In the case of Dolan, the attribute of his that I desired was the recognition from the most important film festival in the world at such a young age, which should have happened to me but never did.
As my father once guffawed when I was lamenting my lack of progress in the film business, “You’re a twenty-two-year-old has-been!” At the time that stung. Now I realize it was quite funny because my spoiled-brat lamentations were ridiculous, unfounded. If anyone knew that I was precocious but not a young prodigy, it was Dad. Did he know I would end up such a late bloomer? I doubt it; like any parent, his hopes and aspirations were pinned to my success. But I don’t think it would have surprised him if you had told him then what my actual career trajectory was going to be. He’d probably shake his mighty jowls and grumble what he said to me once, “Well, if only he’d had the brains to finish college.”
In the rare instances I get those unpleasant, un-heroic twangs of envy about someone else’s success, I find the best thing to do is express what I’m feeling out loud to a friend. Anyone will do, any medium will do, even a text message that goes unanswered. Immediately after I express myself, the sensation of envy is lifted and replaced by another ephemeral emotion: shame that I felt envy in the first place.
It’s just as well my Québécois friend, Dominic, messaged me to diffuse the envy and straighten my spine again. We chatted about Dolan and our own journeys in film. He was messaging me from the editing suite where he is cutting his first feature film. Dominic was in development with it for eight years, this despite the financial support that Canada gives its filmmakers. “I was so tired of my script by the end,” he wrote. “Now that it’s in the can, I wish this feeling on all my director friends [who have yet to make their first features].”
By the time I finally move forward with my directorial debut next year, it will have been in development for a mere four years. But I have languished in development hell for far longer than that, for as long as Xavier Dolan has been alive, in fact. As unmanly as it is, perhaps my envy is excusable, hopefully an indication that I still have a lot of fight left in me.
Dominic and I waxed philosophical for a while, swatting around platitudes about not comparing yourself to others, which, like envy, is actually quite healthy provided it doesn’t darken your mood and embitter your personality. “Personal velocity is the motto,” Dominic wrote. “I’m just trying to make the best film possible.”
I like the notion of ‘personal velocity’. I have to, or my endless stint in development hell would drive me crazy, or worse make me give up. I did that once, left filmmaking for five years, got a ‘real job’ in banking and management consulting. Lesson learned: Never abandon your vocation no matter how bad it gets; it’s a gift that most people aren’t blessed with. Better by far to die having failed at what you love than having succeeded in what you hated.
More than reminding me of the 2002 film Personal Velocity, my friend’s motto evoked You Shall Know Our Velocity, wunderkind author Dave Eggers’ follow-up to his acclaimed first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s fair to say that Velocity, his first work of fiction, was nowhere near the quality of his debut; in fact, had it been his first book, had he not established his name and readership with A Heartbreaking Work…, I doubt Velocity would ever have been picked up for publishing. After bursting from the starting gate at the young age (for an author) of thirty, greatly aided by an intense and emotional autobiographical story, Eggers slowed down to a trot punctuated with standstill. He’s been floundering with the rest of us ever since, and doing it in the public eye.
A couple of days after my conversation with Dominic, Xavier Dolan won the Jury Prize. Not the Palme D’Or itself, but still… There he was standing at the podium next to fellow winner and fellow former enfant terrible et prodige Jean-Luc Goddard.
That night I watched Dolan’s autobiographical first film, J’Ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother). I had to pause it a few times because it is probably the most realistic depiction of my complex and toxic relationship with my own mother that I have ever seen portrayed on film. The first time I paused it was when Dolan’s teacher quotes Cocteau: “The mother of a son will never be his friend.” The second was when Dolan’s character — he wisely plays himself — is screaming at her, rightly calling her a narcissist, while she ignores him, his words bouncing off her without effect: “Whatever. You’re just like your father.” How many times have I heard that willfully cutting mistruth?
I am impressed and inspired by Dolan’s honesty, authenticity and passion. Cannes is as well, clearly. I would never have wanted to make films that lacked those same qualities, which is a difficult thing to do within the American system unless you have private money that is willing to back your vision. Until recently, that sort of backing has eluded me.
With the knowledge I have garnered over the years about the business of filmmaking, being a film-festival darling makes no economic sense. We who do not have the benefit of government support don’t have the luxury of making product that appeals to festival programmers and has little commercial value; shit, we’re lucky if we get a tax break from some flyover state we don’t really want to shoot in. Still, I have held out with my project; I am trying to make films that are as honest, authentic, and passionate as Dolan’s as well as commercially viable — not easy. And that’s but one reason I am where I am in mid-middle age.
“I’m glad it took me so long to shoot the film,” Dominic wrote during our online chat. “I’m older, wiser. I wasn’t ready at twenty like Dolan.” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, even if I was ready at almost as early an age; perhaps not at twenty, but certainly at twenty-two, when I wrote my first script, thereby teaching myself how to write screenplays — a confirmed autodidact, I’d already dropped out of NYU film school and taken a job at an ad agency, despite being at the top of my class.
Comparing yourself to others is debilitating. I had a burdensome, ridiculous expectation placed on me at eighteen, when I declared my intention to become a film director: I looked and sounded like a young Orson Welles, with his deep, resonant voice, the patrician Britishy accent and intonation, the shock of curly hair atop my head, the height and imposing presence. I was also preternaturally precocious, at least as much as Dolan, albeit emotionally stunted. Friends, family, even movie stars I was acquainted with instilled in me this basurd need to surpass Welles or at least match him, which means I had to make the next great American movie by the time I was twenty-five, when he made Citizen Kane. I ignored the fact that once Welles had arrogantly trashed his relationship with his Citizen Kane co-writer, the older and more experienced Joseph Mankiewicz, who would go on to enjoy a healthy, stable career, Welles was tossed into director hell for the rest of his life. The legendary filmmaker ended up flogging cheap wine on TV to maintain his lifestyle in Las Vegas, one of the places that I would consider hell to end up in.
For a brief time, I thought I had a chance at catching up to Welles. At twenty-four, I was able to put the two scripts I had languishing in my desk to good use as writing samples and landed an odd but intensely glamorous paid scripting job in India, an epic, the biggest ever entirely Indian production up till then. The director was an actual prince, “the Visconti of India,” as I referred to him as a way to boost my own credentials; India wasn’t on anyone’s map or radar at the time, so my madness needed all the PR it could get to justify it. Although a major award winner, the director wasn’t anything like Visconti, sadly, and after two and a half years the film ground to a halt mid-production, never to be resumed.
By then I had the India bug, and it wasn’t just regular bouts of dysentery and viral fever. I was passionately in love with the country and her culture. The West needed to share my passion, just as India needed to stop making those dreadful masala movies and produce films that Westerners liked. I was going to be the bridge between the twain, the catalyst that would finally make them meet. I have never tilted at a bigger windmill, this one multi-armed and colored blue, like Shiva.
I spent the 90s plowing through my own and everyone else’s money trying to get various projects set in India off the ground. I tried my hand at a semi-autobiographical piece à la Sundance Festival about Indians in New York City, but it never got much further than a series of table readings with a young Aasif Mandvi voicing the lead. In the end, it was too derivative of The Wedding Banquet, according to James Schamus, who launched his career producing that movie. Onto the scrap pile it went.
My India obsession got to a point that a British executive producer said to me, “James, my boy, if I pick up one more of your scripts that begins ‘Exterior, India — Day’ I’m going to kill myself.” Keeping that in mind, in ’97 I wrote another semi-autobiographical script with no Indian characters or locations called American Bastard. It got decent play, but after a year or so was also put aside atop my growing pile of original scripts. By the turn of the century they amounted to over twenty.
Bastard was revived in ’09 by a group of worthy New York producers as a TV script and series bible. It became my answer to Gossip Girl, a series that had upset me with its unrealistic, gaudy portrayal of the world from whence I come. The real thing is already so dark and fucked up, why not show it for what it is? That, too, made the rounds, loved by everyone, produced by none. Luckily, it wasn’t just put back on the neglect pile: It is taught at Columbia University film school in a business-of-television course as the ideal pilot and series bible.
In 2002, I wrote what many consider my masterpiece, the much-storied Hatter. I was given a blinking green light by a reputable production company in London owned by a bona fide billionaire. I wrapped things up in Los Angeles and moved there to prep for my debut. Hatter’s cast included Alan Cumming and Rebecca Romijn, and a young man named Channing Tatum, whom I’d picked out of a line-up at an agency that repped models transitioning to acting. I was pushing forty and anxious about that, but still, it wasn’t too late. Plenty of directors with solid careers had started then.
I had broken a cardinal rule of film and theater production and put all my eggs in one basket; however, my personal situation left me with little choice. It turns out my blinking green light was predicated on tax breaks, which I knew nothing about at the time; they are subject to frequent changes at the whim of a government, and that has cracked plenty of eggs bigger than mine. I also believe the backers got cold feet: Hatter is NC-17, as racy and subversive today as when it was first written. It, too, was shelved, and I wandered off into development on other projects.
Yes, we all make mistakes, but only time will tell if they are really as egregious as we think they are, or if they are indeed mistakes at all. For instance, I am still ambivalent about the one mistake my parents in particular think is my most damaging: dropping out of not one, but two prestigious film schools.
I don’t regret quitting NYU; it’s a factory. Teaching my mid-length feature Losing Her there offered me one of those rare moments of triumph in the many parched and despondent years I’ve spent in development hell, a triumph I would never have enjoyed had I stuck it out and graduated. After the first lecture I gave, I asked the class if they had any more questions. With none forthcoming, I said, “Many years ago, when I dropped out of this school, I had a fight with my father. I said, “I won’t spend another dime of your money to go there, but one day I will lecture there.’ Thank you very much for having me.” The ensuing applause is a memory I bring out as a salve on those days when regret has beaten me bloody.
Wesleyan University in a more complex story. If I could go back to the nineteen-year-old I was then, waving the knowledge I have now. I would strongly advise him to reconsider running off after freshman year to Paris and then Australia, never to return. I would tell him, “Wesleyan grads run Hollywood; from Michael Bay on down, they are the arch-crapmeisters. If you play the game, you won’t suffer financial indignities as severely.”
I don’t know that my younger self would listen, and I don’t know that he should. I was too miserable at Wesleyan. One night I got stoned and tried to follow Akiva Goldsman, who was a couple years older than me, explain phenomenology to a fellow student. I didn’t get what he was saying, not a single concept. I felt stupid, unworthy of being at the school. And Reagan’s America was hideous. I’d had enough: I yearned to go back to Europe, where I grew up.
Many years later, Akiva would turn out to also be something of an inspiration, as well as a cautionary tale. Despite winning an Oscar for the script for A Beautiful Mind in 2002, he didn’t direct his first feature, Winter’s Tale, until 2013, when he was slightly older than I am now. It was released on Valentine’s Day this year. It had all of the elements that should have made it a hit: it was based on a beloved best-selling novel, it had a stellar cast and crew, not to mention his own Oscar-worthy writing. The film flopped mightily.
I feel no schadenfreude about Akiva’s disaster, just as I wouldn’t envy his success had it been a hit, not with a film like that. All he does is make up my mind now just as he did that woozy night at Wesleyan when I decided to leave: A career path that is dishonest to who I am, paved with inauthentic material executed with zero passion, but with maximum cynicism, is not what I ever wanted. (It is, however, what Akiva, an ambitious social climber at Wesleyan and then in Hollywood, wanted for himself. Fair enough.)
My own directorial debut, Dragonfly, is set to begin production in the summer of 2015. It isn’t a pipe dream that might collapse if tax breaks go away: a single financier is backing the production; it is his pet project, autobiographical for both him and me — it’s our lives combined, set to a plot inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams. It is honest, authentic, and passionate.
We know we stand a good chance with this: the script hasn’t been sent out wide, yet, but by accident slipped into UTA’s coverage system and made their Best Reads of 2013; there are no more demanding readers than those at the top Hollywood talent agencies. It was also used to test producers who are aspiring fellows of the Canadian Film Center. It received unanimous praise, as well as some useful constructive notes.
It turns out I am a late bloomer, not the wunderkind everyone expected. If everything goes even halfway to plan, I will enjoy a late-life career. Nobody close to me would have ever thought this when I was younger; my personal velocity was meant to be fast and furious — I was to rival Spielberg, with the weight of Orson Welles. That will never happen now. I may direct a few films, but I am likely to write more than I direct — I will still be able to scribble long after I am unable to stomp around a set twelve hours a day, for eight weeks in a row.
Godspeed to you, Xavier Dolan. Your velocity is powerful: Soar! I know my own velocity, now. I am comfortable and content with it, frustrated no longer. I am also comfortable just having participated — not everyone wins the Tour de France, but many try and at least have the dignity of being able to say they’ve made the run.
There have been no short cuts, only detours. I can’t say I wouldn’t have had it any other way; I would have, for sure, and could have if I’d played it differently. But this route has been worth it, too. It’s been far more scenic and exciting than most.