Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: Creating on Fumes

When I was a kid, from say the age of ten to 25, I used to make a game out of staying up all night. It was exciting watching all the lights go out in the high rises all around me, as I puttered around reading, listening to music, writing. At around 4 or 5 am I’d check to see who was still up, and usually there was a lonely light in an apartment or two. I wondered what my fellow insomniacs were up to.

Then again, I just realized they could have been plain old somniacs who slept with the light on.

Once, I stayed up for 4 days straight, although I definitely blacked out for an hour somewhere in there. I was frantically renovating the interior of an eyeglass store all by myself because my assistants had abandoned me. That was a no-holds-barred shamanic experience. Every inanimate object on the edge of my vision came to sinister life. Garbage cans scuttled sideways, benches jumped and drifted. Lights uncoiled like serpents and snapped at my face, making me scream. I felt the presence of someone behind me constantly, whispering and chuckling. I burst into tears or laughter without warning. My lips cracked and bled until they scabbed over. My skin turned yellow and hurt. Every hair on my head ached, and I trembled convulsively at times, but was afraid to sit down on the living benches. I doubt I could have had a more extreme experience on LSD or peyote.

When the job was finally done, I flung myself face forward onto my bed, and I still remember the utter ecstasy of that long fall into oblivion. I slept for 24 hours, got up and ate a mountain of bacon and eggs, and passed out for another 12 gorgeous hours.

That was many years ago, and guess what? I can’t do that anymore.

My body and mind simply will not tolerate it. I am much more keenly aware of the knife’s edge of well being. My resources have to be carefully marshaled in order to accomplish worthwhile things. Which is a real shame, because, after all these years, I’m still working in the grueling trenches of film and television production in Toronto. My average day is twelve solid hours of non-stop paperwork mayhem in some rundown factory or warehouse space somewhere in the city that has been

re-purposed as a production office/studio. At the end of the day, I crave nothing more than to fall asleep with a delicious pan-fried Chinese dumpling in my mouth. I have no energy left for conversation or socializing. My friends who have invited me to parties over the years have endless photos of me asleep in the middle of their floor as the rest of the party continues on around me.

All of which is a real shame, because what I really want to do is direct. I’m actually very good at it, from years of working on original plays with my own theatre company. But in all the years I’ve been making plays and films, I have never had the luxury of not working at a more than full time job at the same time.

I was working on some big Michael Douglas piece of shit from 8 am to 8 pm then running off to shoot a half hour short I’d written, and rehearsing a play for our first New York theatrical debut. In order to make time for all this, I had to give up most of the time I would normally have spent sleeping. Again, I was younger then, and could still sort of pull this off without becoming hysterical.

If there is one thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s that you cannot overestimate the significance of a good night’s sleep. When I’m not exhausted, it’s so much easier to be creative. Ideas come effortlessly, and there is great joy in the work. No problem seems insurmountable, failure is a laughable concept, and despair can’t get within a hundred miles of me.

I know I’ve done good work in my life, but I can’t help but wonder how much better it might have been had I not had to hop up and down continuously during rehearsals to keep from falling asleep. Many other artists are in the same boat of course, but the filmmaking process seems the most prone to it. On big budget union shoots it’s not uncommon for the crew to shoot 14 to 16 hour days. And that’s not even acknowledging the crew members who habitually have pre-calls and wrap after everyone else. It ain’t healthy, and it’s not conducive to good work.

It seems that every low budget indie film I’ve worked on follows the same nightmarish pattern: tiny crews working insane hours until everyone is too burnt out to give a damn. I know there are all kinds of unavoidable constraints, but for godsake try and do whatever you can to make the days reasonable. Time after time I’ve arrived on the set of a small indie shoot as an actor to find a crew that has been working for seven long days straight. Everyone is completely wasted and no longer cares whether anything is working. The director is out of ideas and moving at a snail’s pace. The cameraman can’t see straight. What is the point of going on, if you’re only shooting unwatchable shit? IT’S TIME TO GO TO BED.

So I do. And I sleep on it.

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