2012 in Review

Better late than never. It was therapeutic to do this last year, so I thought I’d continue the practice. Overall it was a good year of achievements but more importantly of realizations and growth:

A wonderful breakup: Last year ended on a terrible note when I had to finally break ties with my Shelter producers. It was inevitable, it was an unhealthy relationship from the start. My spidey-senses tingled from day one that something wasn’t right about us working together but I didn’t heed my gut’s warnings. How do you listen to your feelings in a brand new situation? I needed words, I need someone either to articulate what I was feeling or better yet to give me their own logic, based on their own decades of experience. So instead of relying on myself to make the decision to move forward with these strangers, I allowed wiser souls to make it for me. That probably should have been my first cue that shit was going to hit the fan in a terrible way.

When I finally got the advice I so desperately needed to hear, that I couldn’t ignore because it resonated with my entire being, I realized how much valuable time I had wasted by not paying more attention to my senses in the first place. But it’s not only lost time. Over the course of working with my ‘exes’, my confidence as a writer and director was stripped to bone, to the point I felt I knew nothing and was capable of nothing – not the best place to be in as a filmmaker. 

I’ve learned very late in life how impressionable I am, the drastic effect ‘enabling’ and ‘paralyzing’ partners can have on me – how I can scale mountains with one and feel like utter crap after talking to the other. So much rides on the people I stand next to. I wish I had thicker armor, but at this point I think I’m too old to change – and I think we’d all prefer to be with collaborators that inspire us rather than ones that makes us shrink. This has somehow been the theme of all of my successes: there was always someone there, a partner, a teacher, a coach next to me that helped me see what could be, what I could do, and that is why I ultimately grew.

But despite this nuclear implosion, I don’t regret it – in these past few months I’ve regained my mojo plus some extra. I have a newfound optimism in the project and in myself to rise to the occasion. I see more clearly the things and experiences I’ve forgotten to leverage. I’ve met new potential partners while reconnecting with old mentors from my past. I am ready to start again. 

Learned to juggle: Over the summer, as Shelter progress waned, I began to consider starting something new. Up until then, I had resisted the idea of working on multiple projects simultaneously. Part of my fears were physiologically based – could my tiny brain handle working on more than one story at a time. But I also had met way too many walking clichés during my internship in Los Angeles, to many writers/directors talking the talk, hustling, ‘working on several things’, and not really getting anywhere and I didn’t want to end up like that. I do believe there’s power in focusing instead of casting the net too wide.

So I’m not sure how it happened, maybe I had too much time on my hands, but I ended up starting three new projects last year: two shorts and a feature-length film. All three projects have met varying degrees of success in their early stages of development: one short was nominated for the Bosch Coproduction Prize while the other I’m currently prepping for in Cairo. The feature project was shortlisted for the Biennale College Cinema Fund (cosponsored by Gucci). The irony is that all three stories were old ideas I abandoned years ago and were simply collecting dust in my drawer. I’m still figuring out how to move forward on each, while acknowledging some might have more traction than others. But I’m sure each seedling will grow at its own pace.

What’s great about a young story is what it forces you to learn, forces you to become in order to author it – so far I’ve been photographing again, attended circus school to learn how to stiltwalk, translating Arabic materials, studying the intricacies of time travel . . . I’m excited to see where all this leads to.

Became more physically aware: I started taking yoga last spring at Lexington’s HealthWorx with a great teacher, Rosemary Pearson-Rosenthal. I remember coming in on the first day, after a heavy session of kettlebell swings and macho-man deadlifts, wanting to ‘cooldown’. But it was only after a few sessions that I could see yoga could offer me something more than a new way to stretch. It wasn’t a series of mumbo-jumbo chants or impossible poses like I had thought – it was a retreat, a chance to move the body without ‘working’ or trying to prove something. And so I became addicted and I’m still a fiend.

It was these retreats from the real-world that taught me how to better handle the real-world – that taught me how to juggle multiple things and decisions without allowing them to overwhelm me. It’s hard to put into words what yoga does, as it depends so much on the teacher and the student – all I can say is give it a try for a bit and see for yourself its side-effects. 

Figure drawing: As I became more aware of my body and mind through yoga, I simultaneously began studying the external human form more closely. I finally confronted one of my major weaknesses as an artist by taking a short figure drawing class that I wrote about previously and following up with weekly open sessions at the nearby University of Kentucky Art Institute.

Experiments in home improvement: That need to observe and work with my hands oddly enough led to a series of home improvement projects. Odd because I’m not really a ‘DIY’ kind of person; I used to be one of those guys you see in the lumbar department searching for a lightbulb. Well, no more.

It all began when my mom bought an old army radio desk to repurpose into a TV stand. Despite its sad condition, it was clear there was a thing of beauty underneath all those gobs of army-grade paint and battle rust.  So I decided I would take it apart, bolt by bolt, strip it, buff it, sand it and repaint it with a little Moroccan flair.

Surprised by the results, I began to see the world around me as a series of potential DIY projects. The local Home Depot became my mecca. I got on a first name basis with some of the employees. Even started helping other customers with their own projects, including that poor shmuck in the lumbar department searching for a lightbulb. I finished some simple jobs around the house, caulking this, painting that. I became confident in my own two hands. There is something oddly empowering and addictive about physical work, fixing something, making it right again.

So . . . despite how eclectic last year’s activities were, there are thin threads connecting them, and lessons I’d like to hold on to this year: the importance of listening to one’s own gut and body despite inexperience, embracing challenges, investing time in the strange pursuits that makes us happy and of course continuing to learn.

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My ‘Bosch Stiftung Film Prize Nominee Forum’ Experience

I just came back from Berlin where I attended a film forum organized by the Robert Bosch Foundation. Organized for nominated projects competing for their 2013 Arab-German co-production film grants. 

I first found out about the Bosch Foundation and their generous funding opportunities this past summer in Amman where I attended a short-film project market hosted by the Royal Film Commission of Jordan meant to help Arab writer/directors partner up with German producers. After some pitch training and meetings, I decided to join forces with an ambitious producer, Jessica Landt from Beleza Film, and apply to the co-production grant together with our short fiction project The Stork.

We were shortlisted and invited to the Nominee Forum with nine other teams, each working on either short fiction or documentary projects, also made up of Arab and German filmmakers. It was an intense few days of training rounded out with good food and conversations. I think we all left more prepared to officially pitch our projects in February to the jury during the 2013 Berlinale.

Since I found it so useful, I thought I’d summarize my highlights:

Pitch training with Cathy de Haan: I first met Cathy in the Amman project market, where she introduced us to the art of pitching, but here she had more time to expand on her advice. She reminded us of the essentials: to keep things clear, consistent and concise – reflected in everything from how we use our voices, our bodies and the design of our visual material. We’ve got to relax, to enjoy the process, because we’ll never have this opportunity again to speak to this particular audience about this specific film. We tend to get so wound up with our presentations and ourselves that we forget about our audience; who we’re actually pitching to and who has ultimate power. What do they know about the project already?, what do they want to hear and how/why will they be moved by your project? Even if they’re critical of the pitch in the end, we should be appreciative and answer their concerns seriously, as their questions and feedback is proof they actually took the time to hear our pitch.

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The Figure

This spring I signed up for a short figure drawing class at the Lexington Art League to help me as I develop a lookbook for Shelter. The human figure is a complex subject and something I’ve been reluctant to try to capture as a whole on one page. In my past work, it’s been easier for me to cut up the body, and deal with parts of it at a time, like portraits. Here’s an example from an exhibit a while back:

But this class gave me the right amount of courage to begin developing my weaknesses and explore the complex problems the human form offers. It was short, just four weeks, meeting for three hours at a time – but with that small dose my enthusiasm and endurance for drawing grew.

Here are some results from those guided sessions:

After that, I started attending open model sessions at my local university on Saturday mornings. Here there was less guidance, each artist exploring their own goals in the medium of their choosing. The results have been hit and miss so far but I’m enjoying the process. Some of my favorites so far:

I’m enjoying this process, working with no goal in mind, not thinking about an ‘audience’ or even expressing myself. Just observing what’s in front of me and trying to represent it with the simplest of tools. There’s something meditative in just ‘looking’ at someone, the features that make them unique, the bend of a wrist, the curve along the back of an arm …

It’s also been a great reminder of the need to devise one’s own curriculum that addresses personal weaknesses. And to invest our time and resources in our passions and interests regardless of what they may be.

I’ll continue to post my artmaking on my tumblr blog as well as photographs if you’re interested in following along.

A Space of One’s Own, Part 1

After the Binger Lab, I felt drained. Tired of working on the same project, in the same way, with the incessant opinions of others. I needed a break and a chance to listen to my own wisdom. I needed not only private time, but more importantly private space.

So when I came back to the States I decided to rent a studio for a short creative sabbatical. I found an amazing space that used to be the basement of an old YMCA in downtown Lexington. Despite the cost, I decided to rent it, turning this obscenely large room into my own writer’s office and painting studio.

As a filmmaker, I was able to rationalize the expense and rekindled interest in art making as a skill that would prove useful in pre-visualization and preparing a lookbook for “Shelter“.

It was kind of like an office where I could pace, think, and stretch out my other projects. Where I could leave my tools out in the open, sprawled out all over the tables and floors for the next day’s work. And create an ‘assembly-line’ like atmosphere for the stuff I needed to get done and a laboratory for my curiosities.

It was a place where I could be reckless and fail.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of prototyping and quickly making our ideas into something physical, something we can touch and see. Because of this experience, I’m even more adamant that all creative types need such nooks to tinker in.

This nook is ideally a space of any size where you can turn your creative brain inside out and jot down your raw ideas and ambitions into something physical.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting you have to go rent out some grand space for your own creative endeavors. In fact, in Part 2 of this post I’ll propose how we can carve out our own creative nooks in our homes to fulfill a similar purpose. My point here is I believe we need something, anything, even a corner of a room, that takes a physical footprint in our lives if we’re serious about our ambitions.

A place that can evolve organically as a project grows and matures. Where you can plop your butt down for a little bit everyday, have your tools nearby and push your projects forward bit by bit.

If you haven’t already, I’d like you to give some serious thought about how to give your ambitions a physical space. It can be something as simple as a dedicated corkboard over your computer. Ask yourself how you can use atmospheric elements like playlists, framed art, lighting, to get yourself in the mood immediately when you sit down to work.

Ideally, this space will not only remind you of your ambitions, but also act as a ballast in those moments when you doubt yourself and your genius.

We’ll explore all of this further in Part 2. In the meantime, here are some examples of private spaces to inspire you writers and artists out there.

Share Your Skills

I’ve attempted these past few months to organize a workshop on screenwriting with two community centers. These plans keep falling through so I thought I’d take the initiative and organize something on my own.

There’s an online marketplace called Skillshare where you can find classes to take in your city or post one of your own you’d like to teach.

Their template allows you to quickly create a class and build an audience of potential students. You’re able to follow other teachers and your students are able to leave you feedback.

You can learn more in this short promo of theirs:

I’ve posted three short workshops I feel qualified to teach. We’ll have to wait to see what the response is but it was a great exercise to organize my ‘marketable skills’ and advertise them like this.

You can check out my teaching & classes profile here.

I’m assuming many of you reading this also have skills you can leverage to organize and teach a class of your own. I recommend you do so, as it’s a great way to reenergize your craft, give something back to your community and earn some extra cash to invest in your creative ambitions.

Drop me a line if you do organize a class on Skillshare – I’d like to follow your progress.

The Best of 2011 for 2012

I combed through my RSS feeds and bookmarks for what I felt where the most useful things I read or saw this year on the web. Because of their resonance, they’re resources I’ll probably refer to again and again in 2012. The themes center around hard work, success and living an artistic life. I’ve organized the articles into a narrative, but feel free to skip around and choose buffet-style. Hope you enjoy the curation:

Grit, perseverance, and how to get better:

1. The Future of Self-ImprovementGrit Is More Important Than Talent, Part I & Part 2:  (Jocelyn Glei via The 99 Percent)

If we want to cultivate expertise, or “genius,” or whatever you want to call it, we need to be able to step outside of ourselves, observe how we are operating, reflect on what could be better, theorize how we could change it, and then test out a solution. The problem is: This is very, very hard for most people.

2. ‘Hustle‘ (Matt Nowack via ihumanable)

The best way to learn anything is to do it, to struggle through, to forge on, to fight and gnash teeth and curse at. There is no knowledge as highly regarded as that which you have to work for.

3. ‘Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?’ (Atul Gawande via The New Yorker)

You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches – showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

Eliminate choices and make decisions:

4. ‘Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?’ (John Tierney via The New York Times):

Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options.

Good work is easier than you think:

5. ‘Everything Is a Remix‘ (Kirby Ferguson) Amazing to realize the patterns in art and film and begin thinking in terms of ‘recipes’ and how everything is a remix of something else.

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.

6. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist‘ (Austin Kleon) Down to earth guide on how to start ‘stealing’ or borrowing from others as a starting point for what you’re working on.

Art is all about the slow accumulation over time.

7. ‘The 50 Things Every Creative Should Know‘ (Jamie Wieck) Not applicable across all creative fields but there’s definitely some points you can save for reference. You can use this as a template to come up with your own ‘essential 50’.

IF YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL, FAIL WELL: Being ambitious means you have to take on things you think you can’t do. Failures are unfortunate, but they are sometimes necessary.

8. ‘How underdogs can win‘ (Malcolm Gladwell via The New Yorker): Written a while back something I keep referring to and that’s fits nicely on this list. While grit is an essential part of success, so is street smarts; sizing up your reality and figuring out how to leverage what you have despite your weaknesses. What ‘rules’ or conventional wisdom in your field can you break to your advantage?

It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

Build yourself a garage & tinker:

9. ‘Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Research System‘ (Cal Newport via Study Hacks): How to mix daily work, with ‘little bets‘, and make sure you’re working towards mastery and discovery.

10. ‘How Weekend Projects Can Free Your Inner Rock Star‘ (Kevin Purdy via Lifehacker): Pursue new projects with time constraints to achieve outside of your expertise and experience.

11. ‘Try something new for 30 days’ (Matt Cutts via TED.com): Last spring I tried writing poetry for 100 days straight and had phenomenal results. Something I’ll probably repeat this year for a different activity. Here’s a short guide to devising your own month-long challenges for 2012.

Binger . . . again

I’ve been reluctant to blog about my ‘Shelter’ journey only because I didn’t think it would be useful to anyone out there. But I’ve decided in these next four months in Amsterdam to share my experience, trials and tribulations as I participate at the Binger again for their Directors Lab. I think blogging will be a great way to organize my thoughts and journey as I get closer to the production of this film.

Stay tuned!