How filmmaking is like yoga (part 1)
I used to hate savasana. Couldn’t wait to get out of it, to roll over and know the yoga class was done. Now it’s my favourite moment. What’s changed?
Well, possibly a few factors. I started doing more yin practices, which seems to have helped to slow me down, and to learn to appreciate the importance of rest as well as the 'less is more' approach. My bodyworker helped with that too. Lying on a mattress on the floor in a session, and being gently encouraged to keep relaxing into deeper and deeper levels, finally made me notice how tensed and scrunched-up I was when I was so-called relaxing. Plus I got burnt out, bigtime. That happened even with a mostly-consistent practice in place, so lying on the floor felt good and restful. It was an excuse to stop.
Somehow along the way I must have actually developed an embodied understanding of the role that the rest-phase plays in maintaining my physical and mental health, productivity, effectiveness, creative flow, happiness and so on, because now I embrace it. Various practices help me with that, such as yoga and meditation as well as R&R time, but it's an ongoing process that benefits from consistent reminders. In fact, I must need a break this week, which is why I’ve subconsciously chosen to complete this particular half-finished post from the archives as a reminder for me to have some restorative down-time that will allow some ideas and questions I have on my mind to float around inside and work themselves out. Hopefully a solution emerges...;)
So anyway check this out. This always makes me smile and jogs vivid memories of the day it was taken, when we were in Northern California filming The Portal. It's my behind-the-scenes savasana pic.
There’s me, I’m just chilling, Tom’s checking a couple of emails, Georgie is hanging out taking photos, Dan…not sure where he is but that might be his computer there getting some time-out. Pinky, he's in another room being joyous. Jay, in his room tech-checking gear. This may look like, “are they really making a film?” but I can assure you there was A LOT going on. This is actually a really great example of the calm amid the chaos applied to filmmaking.
What you're looking at is like savasanna: the rest pose that allows all the work to settle in, the options to float around, enabling a clarity to emerge from within in the form of intuition. Very necessary!
OK, so what was also going on?
We didn’t have a location. Again. We were supposed to be filming Heather H. running through a stadium tunnel. It would be her metaphoric victory run, silhouetted by the blown-out light streaming in from the stadium at the far end of the tunnel. It was going to pay homage to her track days, her escape mechanisms, her journey to transform the pain of her youth and the heartbreak of her lost pro-career and Olympic dreams. We were all very passionate about this scene, not just for Heather’s story but narratively it’s a key moment in the film: a universal symbol of victory in life, an ability to move on, and connect more deeply with who we are.
But our local field crew hadn’t come up with a suitable location at which we could film for an hour-ish for less than about 20k or something. Guys, that type of money isn’t going to work, this is a doco we’re making! So Tom, Georgie, Dan and I were all location scouting–again–from our phones, computers, lounge room and, yep... 'the field’.
I can’t 100% remember the whole deal but basically Georgie was liaising with Heather, who was on standby for a decision on where to meet us. Weather was inclement and she was about 30-60mins from us depending on traffic, which was about to hit peak hour in the Bay Area. There were regular pings and back-n-forthing with questions and updates.
Dan (DOP) was looking into pedestrian tunnels in San Jose area, near where we were staying. Aesthetically he’d found a couple that seemed cool but the afternoon peak hour was going to make it complicated as we needed them to be empty but school kids were about to come through, followed by the rest of the commuters. Those constraints were looking difficult to get around. Plus he wanted to shoot for afternoon light as best we could. So all things considered, challenging. But it was in play.
For a while I’d been following a random thread that was abandoned railway tunnels and drains, or something. Sounds dodgy but I’d come up with a few options in some forums. Some looked amazing, nowhere near us though. And a couple that were 60-90mins away and in gated national parks that seemed to have rangers etc. Hhmmm.
Tom was on locations too. All sorts of location issues that weren't solved yet but needed solving. Endless!
Pinky would float in occasionally for some good vibes and to just check on the progress and let us know that he was ready when we were, if we were. Nothing yet, sorry Pinky.
Dan wanted to go and recce the pedestrian tunnel. In theory a good idea except that if it turned out not to be suitable then it would have eaten into essential driving time that we needed to head north to the potentially-gated park with the possibly-accessible tunnel I’d found.
Alternatively we could drive up to one of mine, which looked good and we may just make it in time for sunset if the traffic wasn’t too bad. Hopefully we'd coincide with Heather, fingers crossed park access was possible, and there wouldn’t be a ranger there, and that we could access the tunnel, and that it wouldn’t be overgrown. And it wouldn’t be raining.
Or we could drop it and reschedule for one day when we had time to recce first. But there was a possibility that if we didn’t get this scene today we didn’t know when we were going to be able to squeeze it in!
More messages between Heather and Georgie. What a trooper. Time ticking, losing daylight.
We needed to make a call on it so we were pondering, just letting the options and parameters and likelihood of success all sink in. Going slow to go fast, so to speak. That’s when Georgie snapped this photo.
And it must have worked because amid all the lying around pondering, suddenly the best option emerged and we were going for it, deciding to head north to the tunnel I’d found. We gathered ourselves together and hit the road. So did Heather. Traffic wasn’t too bad, rain was light and when we got there, it was an open-access scenario, no gate. No questions. Great.
We hadn’t known what to expect so had planned a whole bunch of funny decoy tactics involving Tom and Georgie diverting attention while we put up our invisibility shields, got our gear out, and tried to look like we were just hanging. It was around 5pm and there was a bit of movement with some rangers who seemed to be changing shifts. Heather was going to be there around 5.30pm. We were biding our time till she arrived, taking tourist snaps of the Golden Gate bridge, enjoying the moody skies and so on.
Tom did some scoping up towards the rangers to get the lay of the land. Dan and I headed to scout some tunnels. There were a couple of good ones, one particularly that had a height and length like it could work. Shape-wise not quite like our dream stadium tunnel but otherwise great, especially under the circumstances. Pinky was doing his sound-guy tunnel reverb test thing, spreading joy and having fun. Jay keeping the gear invisible but ready.
Then Heather arrived and it was on.
We needed to keep someone on lookout at the ranger-end of the tunnel all the time, so Tom and Georgie swapped regularly allowing Tom to get a chance to see what we were doing, and Georgie to take stills.
The whole thing went smoothly without a hitch. The location and shoot ended up being perfect. And free. And it looked amazing. Calm amid the chaos.
That’s something I love about filmmaking, when you’re pushing against the edge of what's possible, and the magic of intention, preparation, commitment, team, synchronicity and serendipity unite to bring in something awesome, not entirely planned yet perfect. But it really requires an ability to not freak out when things are not falling into place, to listen to your intuition, to have a definite but flexible plan that you’re working towards with a committed and harmonious group of people who all believe in the same vision and want to make it happen but who can pivot when it’s not working. All that is key. Yoga is great prep for that. So is meditation.
Filmmaking ultimately comes down to how do you (and the team) solve this particular creative challenge or that particular logistical challenge (often under extreme pressure of some sort) so the film can stay on schedule and on budget (and you stay kind of semi-sane though sometimes that’s debatable) while bringing a creative vision and story to life. So challenge is a big deal and being able to approach it with a level head, discernment, good judgement and calm are the markers of not just immediate success, but a longer term success in the field.
Now, just to be clear, I would describe myself as someone who is generally good with making high-level decisions under challenging circumstances. But there have been lots of times when, for example, I wish I had have kept my cool but I didn't, or I could have guided a team-member more successfully, or communicated more effectively, and it didn’t happen. Those then become areas that I focus on so that next time (or the next time or the time after that) I do nail it. I take this stuff seriously for a bunch of reasons: 1) I’m committed to longevity in the industry; 2) I want to be part of a creative and flourishing environment in which people enjoy working; 3) I'm committed to performing at a high level and improving every day; 4) I like to set a standard for me that hopefully inspires others; 5) I want to work towards establishing coherence, or group flow, with my team as together we create work that we’re proud of.
Making a film requires a synergy and coherence between a bunch of individuals who, when brought together, become something more than the sum of their parts. The film is the emergent property and result of that union. The more I understand about personal development, spiritual practice, mindfulness, etc the more I realise how interlinked everything is and how we can prime ourselves into greatness with others. It excites me.
What I’m also learning, more and more, is the value in debriefing–with other people and yourself–during and after the fact. I used to be scared about doing this, worried of how I’d handle ‘feedback’ or criticism, or of admitting out-loud where I stuffed up, or could have handled something better, or made a better decision. But now I'm embracing it. I’ve realised that a little boldness and openness as we reflect on what went down–good or bad– is a great opportunity to get to know both oneself and one's team. Having uncomfortable but open conversations helps each of us to feel valued and be more resilient, trusting, skilful and adaptable in our role. And in terms of cultivating the building blocks for a powerful team, it helps bring us into coherence, which ultimately I think is where the magic and the greatest potential lies for each of us as creators, and as a species.
Sometimes in these challenging situations the solution lies in bringing a new way of thinking to a problem. Would you like to be the one to stay calm when everyone is about to lose it? Or the one to help put things in perspective? Or be like a divining rod that orients towards the best solution? I definitely do, so honing one's ability to do that is imperative. It does involve self-reflection and practices. That's no joke, it makes a huge difference.
I'm going to keep on sharing a few tips and stories in areas that I hope will be helpful to you guys. I’m also planning a new podcast series coming up that'll give me a chance to dive into conversations with other filmmakers about challenges like this that we've faced, what worked and what didn’t work, what they would do next time etc. So stay tuned for more on that.
And if you haven't had a chance to see The Portal we've got a Sydney screening coming up: 6.20pm on February 27 at the Cremorne Orpheum. With q+a and book signings so I hope to catch you there. Tickets available here.
PS I’ve recently learnt a lot more about the recovery phase in a flow cycle. I’ll come back to that another time because understanding the flow cycle and how to hack your mind, grind and craft is pretty useful.