My first short film was a disaster. A complete and utter fucking disaster. The experience scared the shit out of me and changed the entire course of my filmic career at The University of Iowa. My first short film, Songs About Lying, which was also a short story I wrote for a fiction class (I believe in making the most of every idea I can) was partially inspired by Arcade Fire, and the use of Rebellion (Lies) in an episode of Six Feet Under.
As a twenty six year old in a long term relationship that hadn’t faced any real life changes, my first semester at the University of Iowa, incidentally my first semester taking the film courses I’d dreamed about for years, coupled with a new city, new house, and my boyfriend’s unemployment and frustration, was extremely difficult. I spent the first semester with a horrid, gnawing feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake. I felt old and in the way, embarrassed that I’d never used FCP or owned a real camera. Lacking the resources, I’d never made a film, only dreamt about them. And I was surrounded by eighteen year olds who’d sprung forth from their mothers’ wombs with a camera in one hand and editing software in the other. I had to work as many hours as I could at my soul sucking corporate restaurant to try and stay afloat financially (I barely made it- that is if you consider thousands of dollars in debt a success). Because of this I spent every single weekend or day/night I didn’t have class or a screening at work. I wasn’t able to mingle, I didn’t get to go to the special events I wanted to, and I never had enough time to study. I was worried all the time- about school, money, my relationship, everything.
The summer we moved to Iowa City I drove back to Clear Lake every week to work at Applebee’s in Mason City, while I tried to find a new job in my new town. My boyfriend seemed content to dink around and enjoy his unemployment; he took his time in searching for a job, confident that his experience would net him a job right away. It didn’t. By the time my boyfriend started hitting the pavement looking for anything that would pay the bills it was too late; my dream of only working once a week or not at all had come to a soul crushing halt and I watched in despair as our debt grew, along with my waistline, and my hopes faded. Looking back, I’m not really sure how I made it through, but I did. During my bi-weekly commute from Clear Lake to Iowa City/Iowa City to Clear Lake, I did the only thing I could- listen to Arcade Fire and dream about stories and characters. That was the summer that Arcade Fire almost eclipsed The Strokes, specifically Is This It, in sheer volume of listenings.
I became obsessed with a story about a man who fell in love with a girl, the wrong girl, over a letter. It was inspired by true events sans any romantic tinges, except between the two others involved, and I clung to this idea, eventually turning it into a short story for a fiction class I had. I was fascinated, veering on the edge of obsessed, with the idea of loving the wrong person. It wasn’t that I felt that I was or that I didn’t love my boyfriend, but because every moment I’d experienced of a filmic love/like/possibility/connection never panned out. There was the first boy I ever met who liked The Strokes (that was a huge deal) with whom I walked around Clear Lake with and who had an uncanny timing of calling me at the perfect movie moment time; the boy who looked like John Cusack whom I’d had a crush on forever and may have been the sweetest kisser I’ve ever met; the boy with the crazy triceps tattoos and the love of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind who was the best kisser I’d ever met; or my drinking buddy ____ who I found out was married weeks/months after he’d first sat at my bar and went through my CD collection praising my Elliott Smith CDs and with whom I never did anything with besides drink and then drunkenly spill confessions with every time we were in the same zip-code. We hung out a lot and if he had been younger and single, or I had been older and a whore, maybe things would’ve been different. Instead we had a connection through music, and a friendship that lasted several years despite my telling him I wasn’t that type of girl one fateful night over 40s in his hotel room. The closest we ever came to romance was dancing together to Dark of the Matinee at a Franz Ferdinand concert. I think that was the last time I saw him.
Instead I was faced with the realities of an adult relationship- filled with joys and disappointments, and compromises I’d never pictured at the tender age of twenty-one. I’d pictured a wild passionate romance from the movies with a dark hipster boy in a leather jacket ala Julian Casablancas. Instead I fell in love with a man who hated The Strokes, and loved Bob Marley and Phish, and wouldn’t wear a pair of tattered converse if his life depended on it. But he loved jazz too, and that’s why I feel in love with him. It wasn’t like the movies, not at all. If my life had been like a movie, then any of the aforementioned boys (only two of which I’d ever had any physically romantic interaction) would have been the love of my life in an end all, be all way. But as that hadn’t happened, I found myself drawn to more realistic and heartbreaking portrayals of love onscreen.
I am the same age as the character of Claire Fisher. I didn’t start watching Six Feet Under until after the show had ended, so I was able to watch the entires series in a matter of weeks thanks to marathon episode watching courtesy of Netflix. It wasn’t until the last few seasons that I began to identify with Claire- although her character was born in 1983 and I in 1984, we had been out of sync because I hadn’t watched it when it was still on the air. I’d also been given a burned copy of Arcade Fire’s Funeral years earlier, but much to my later chagrin, I never bothered to listen to it, instead I lost it amongst the shuffle. I had finally purchased Funeral a few months earlier because of the Where the Wild Things Are trailer and my guilt in never having actually listened to it or the hype, because it was obviously my thing. I would ride my bike through the aboretum behind my house and listen to Wake Up I didn’t give a shit about anything else. I was horrified months later when I was watching Six Feet Under and I Shazam-ed a song used during Claire and Billy’s breakup only to find it was Rebellion, track number nine on Funeral. The song summed up everything I felt, and the show summed up everything I feared. I still didn’t learn my lesson though, only adding a second song to my Arcade Fire repertoire. It would be another year before my bi-weekly three hour drives filled with dreams, characters, love and loss, and Arcade Fire.
Whenever I thought about film, I’d always thought about narrative, never anything else. So naturally, when it came time to make my first short film, I decided on a short narrative, filled with love, loss, and the unfulfilled desire that always accompanies it. It was influenced by a lot of things- conversations, people, but it was directly influenced by Rebellion and the feeling Six Feet Under and Claire produced. The film was titled Songs About Lying and all these uber important songs/emotions were included. The film was absolute shit.
I partnered with a friend, and although we got along marvelously in other ways, we didn’t share the same vision and the film suffered. I lacked the confidence to take charge and make the film I wanted, instead I shrank into the background and felt embarrassed, wishing for a black hole to swallow me and my shitty film up. I don’t even have a copy of it, and I’m grateful for that, I don’t know if I’d be able to withstand the pain of seeing it again. The saddest thing of all is that all the parts are there- I can feel it in my bones that it could’ve and should’ve worked had I been a better director. And that knowledge is heartbreaking.
My short film made its way into short story form for the same class as did my story about the man in love with the wrong girl; it fared better there despite the vicious workshopping it and everyone else’s stories received. I felt like a failure. I got an okay grade on the film, and considering that I felt completely lost and had absolutely no idea what I was doing, including my lack of even rudimentary FCP skills (I later learned FCP on my own, through hours alone in an editing room with the FCP handbook in my lap and no other choice, until my amazing Advanced 16mm TA took the time to teach me tricks and shortcuts I never knew existed) I was okay with it. Yet, I approached my upcoming production class with utter trepidation, convinced I would fail miserably. Not wanting to make the same mistake, I turned to personal documentary for my following student films, and I’m fiercely proud of them. The last two films I made were wildly successful compared to my first, and I received such genuine support, praise, and encouragement from two of my teachers, Craig Webster, and especially Chris Renaud, that it changed my filmic life. I discovered ideas and emotions I never knew I wanted to explore. And from there I gained my confidence. Yes, I’m still racked with overwhelming self doubt and probably always will be; but I’ve learned, well honestly, I don’t know what I’ve learned, but I’m glad that I’ve made the films I have. Maybe that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned- to be proud of my work, not because I finished something, but because I put all of my emotion and fear into making the best films I could, and my effort is reflected. Perhaps if I had tried to salvage my first film and hadn’t washed my hands of it when my original vision was tarnished and ruined, I could have made something I was proud of; I didn’t. What I have learned is that, at least for me, the film I think I’m making is never the film I end up with, (all bets are off in the editing room). Now I know that in the future that’s not the best way to make films, in fact it’s actually quite dangerous, but at least it’s taught me to be flexible, but not a pushover. And one of these days I may be ready to try again- make the film I originally intended; because now, even if I fail, I still know I’m good at something. Even if it’s not what I always pictured.