Over the past couple years, I have been humbled to be in a position to be asked for guidance on various projects. From how to build a pitch deck to giving crew referrals- I've taken joy in being able to help where I can. This has a lot to do with my own projects and the people who showed me in their own acts of reciprocal altruism that we all need each other to survive. One of the greatest words of advice I was given early on was to make the work personal.
A little over three years ago, my husband wrote a feature length script for a film called MONIKER. Written out long hand, meticulously edited and then typed out on a vintage type writer which I can still hear sometimes ringing in my ear. A gift for our first wedding anniversary, Clay gave me a dream role on more than one level. The lead character was Maggie - a woman dealing with trauma in her own right and thrown into a well crafted thriller. At the time, I wasn't sure I was up to it. Dealing with unresolved issues of my own I had grown into the habit of avoiding anything that -sorry if this sounds cheesy- made me feel. I was flattered nonetheless and after some serious convincing, Clay put the fate of MONIKER in my hands as not only Maggie but as the film's Director.
We jumped into the frenzy and started to stumble through "How do you make a film?" Coffee meeting after coffee meeting we met with actors, crew, potential investors and mentors. At one point I met with a wonderful indie filmmaker by the name of Jenn Wexler. I had met her over the years at various Glass Eye Pix events and was lucky to see her rise to the badass directress she has become. (Check out her feature directorial debut THE RANGER) Anyway, over kombucha in Dumbo, she offered up all I needed logistically to make a film but also a gem of true insight: make your projects personal.
After some contemplation I decided to take her words to heart and build my plan to make MONIKER its finest. I'd have to make something from me first. My hesitance from this feature and so many others was relinquishing control. What was at the heart of that? Layers. I needed to explore part of my trauma and, in that risk, free my desperate need for control. I put together THE SLIGHTEST TOUCH. Making this project a part of my journey in healing made it vital to my survival not only as an artist but as a person.
In making the film I spoke passionately because it was my passion. I was in a fever dream learning everything I could about filmmaking but also what it meant to me. The subject was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the mission was to portray my voice and undoubtedly others like me. The visual medium would bring the deep feeling of stigma out of the shadows and into the light to offer, even temporarily, a sense of YOU ARE NOT ALONE. In embedding this feeling into the film from screenplay to edit to screening- I made it personal and followed through as a result.
Since the project's finish, the world vibrated the same. Overwhelmed and drowning in the wave of voices for change, I let my heart rest. For those who made the work, those who've seen it-- their feedback has been priceless. The fact that I made a work that meant something to me and that it could now mean something to them BLEW MY MIND. Family members becoming familiar with my silent pain brought us closer together. Friends and viewers being able to see themselves through the story made it all worth while. Not just as an advocate but as a filmmaker, I felt I had finally understood how to move forward.
In the time since I have been lucky to translate that feeling into projects that weren't always my own but certainly became it. Making work personal in front of and behind the camera brings an energy that I can only describe as simultaneously therapeutic and magical. Three films under the banner of my production company, Abandoned House Productions, have taught me different pieces of that same theme. Our slate ahead has me so excited to share those short film projects and the feature ones (including MONIKER and a not so secret other) that have been marinating all along. As I prepare to direct again very soon, I carry the urgency of Jenn's seemingly simple guidance. Make it matter to you and it will matter. Then you'll be like me, excited to share about every story you make.
One of the most difficult parts of growing up is the idea that the world gets more and more boring. As an artist I see casualties of mediocrity all the time. These people did nothing "wrong" and I personally think that's the problem. Following a specific path and being goal oriented isn't bad but it leaves few chances for ingenuity. In order to live our wildest dreams we need to leave room for the impossible.
Once I accepted that I wanted to be an actress my fantasy began to form. It took a few years to be specific, especially when I moved to NYC, but I knew I wanted to embody exciting characters. Without representation when I first started submitting to projects, I went for the things I thought would be obvious sells. In the summer of 2012, I submitted and was called in for two film projects that couldn't be more different. One was a straight drama about a man, a woman and their complicated relationship; the other a subversive horror comedy about teenage lovers against a bunch of mutant cretins. I was auditioning for both at the same time and knew at some point I'd probably have to choose one or the other since their production dates would conflict. It felt like buying two different lottery tickets.
When I asked my actor friends for advice they immediately jumped to the straight drama. They argued it'd be good for my reel and ultimately be a safer bet - one friend even going so far as to say that doing the other would "ruin my career". I felt at that point they might be right, but I couldn't help but smile every time I went in for a callback for the other project. After a month had passed, I had to choose. With no logical way to back it, I made the "wrong" choice and it couldn't have been more right.
That summer I starred in my first feature film and took myself off of the assembly line of safe artists. More than the screen time, what I truly valued was the experience of being a master of my own fate and scaring myself with this kind of newness. The set was beautiful chaos that required that you be constantly adapting and contributing. It was just the experience to lead me to self reliance: accountability for my art. Some said I had burned a few bridges back home but ultimately I didn't care because I'd build my own destiny. I'd use these fumes to fuel my fantasy, this dream that only those who dared could see - no matter the cost.
In the years since that infamous summer, I've done what I can to continue to listen "wrong" choices. They might feel delusional to everyone else but they sure shake things up. A few years ago I had a crossroads between a few different film projects and imploding on it all to make something new. The offer seemed simple: I'd star in a project, get exposure, and it'd lead to more acting work. The only trouble would be soldiering through an existential funk and risk not being able to put my heart into it. People do it all the time at 9 to 5 cubicle jobs---perhaps this was my "putting in time." Risking sense, I said no to so very much. Against the current, I chose to say yes to focusing everything I had to write and direct a film of my own.
Pages and pages of poetry were worked into a script. Years of unresolved feelings manifested into catharsis. Dreaming and scheming turned into a reality and somehow a film was made. This second "wrong" turn revealed a new world for me. It showed me ways I could implement my voice on and off the screen. Being behind the camera made me aware of how I could be in front of it. I saw that I had leveled up in my aspirations as a storyteller.
Now, as I am taken to task in my work, I find that these "wrongs" were my favorite parts. In the tension of those experiences, I grew. Over tears, I opened my mind to what hadn't been possible before. Through pressure and heat, I found myself shining.
Every time we walk on our paths there are signs. The signs are sometimes made by those who've been on the path before you and can lead you for most of the way. They make sense and even offer guaranteed results. Other times, the signs are feelings and tests, as it were. These moments give us a chance to add to our own trail. They can be hard to justify, but they make us who we are. The world is only as boring as you make it. Contradict yourself for once and see where it leads. You might end up in a fantastical place.
First off, I want to apologize for skipping a week. It was much needed and perhaps down the line I'll double up and balance this out. Sometimes I put too much on my plate and though I had an outline for a post- that subject is best served for another week. Anyway, this week I wanted to talk about a bit of how I've trained my "hustle muscle".
When I first moved to NYC, I had no specific desires for my career but I needed to survive. Besides finding a roommate online (I quickly learned how wrong that was.) The only plan I had was to take up a transfer from an old retail job. As things didn't work out right away, I took up a job selling watches in Queens Center Mall. I wasn't there long but in my time there I began to see the necessary toughness of a salesman. So, I jumped into my initial job transfer and began working for a well known skincare brand. There I was surrounded by women from all types of career ambitions. They just needed this for now. I worked and worked. I had a 50% employee discount which ,of course, spelled trouble. I had no ambitions outside the day to day. And when I was abruptly kicked out of my first apartment, all it took was my manager asking "are you okay?" for me to fall apart. A blubbering mess. I was asked to "walk it off." Shortly after I was intimidated out of keeping my job and I was officially jobless, briefly even homeless.
I moved into an interesting living situation. (I'll save that story for another day.) This gave me a moment to breathe and reassess my reason for being here in New York City. There were times that I even managed to fit in self tapes for major projects during this transition. Still no specific goals. Just focused on basic survival. I eventually worked a couple other retail jobs and landed on my feet a bit as a tourism photographer for a Television Network. I was surrounded by some of the glamour that could lead me to be inspired but I couldn't connect it to any higher purpose than a paycheck.
I would wake up five days a week at 4am and be done with my shift at 1pm. The promise was that it would leave me open for auditions and anything else. I had audition invites. I was called in. Most of the time, I chickened out and decided to go back home and rest. I was burned out. It wasn't until a friend at work asked me what I had acted in recently that I had even realized how off track I was. Remedy this I would; I enrolled in Improv classes and began to open my network up. I began to ask questions of my dreams. I booked my first role in a film. The first time I ever really gave it a chance. I left my day to day job with the promise it was still mine if I needed it when I came back. Indie Film. Of course I did.
After the charm of that job wore off, and fast forward a brief time working at a museum---I worked at a Juice Bar for a couple years. It was stressful. It was crowded. It was cut throat. The customers were divas. My coworkers were crazy. I got a free smoothie every shift. It was perfect, for awhile. I maintained a bizarre work schedule 6am-1pm. This allowed me to be at will to the promotion of my first feature film as well as other projects. In my time there I learned to develop a tougher skin. I learned to negotiate favors. I saw what a difference a smile makes and I saw the power of anticipating needs. When I got engaged and my second feature film role called, I left this job and began to search for a new balance.
When I came back from filming, I realized I could no longer commit to any one job. I had tended to devote my energy for fear of losing stability so much that I kept pushing back my dreams. It was then that I focused purely on freelance work for two years. Oh boy, that was a stress ball. The odd jobs galore. I worked flyering jobs. I mastered the passing out of useless expired coupons. Sometimes by simply saying "Here, take a flyer." If I could get three people to-- everyone else would follow suit. Some jobs took me to trade shows repping companies for 15 hours a day. Other jobs had me in lil tight black dresses and stilettos handing out free booze to overgrown frat boys. Sometimes I had to go to some far away supermarket and convince people to sample questionable health food snacks. It was a weird time. Living off of some true karmic lead after another. My attitude mattered. My charm mattered. My ability to go above and beyond mattered. Though scary at first, this lifestyle began to work me out. Helplessness grew to a true understanding of the romantic nature of uncertainty. That is the biz. The girl who cried became steel when she learned it wasn't personal.
In a turn of events, I started to make my creative endeavors personal. Using my newly buff "hustle muscle" I began to find ways to talk about my film and find leads for assembling information & even crew. Jumping from job to job and producing my own work led me to begin to braid the two. In the midst of all this I found a stable moment as a server at Videology Bar and Cinema. Those years never felt like a job but a place to develop routine and connect the dots. Having become opportunistic from my freelance life, I saw the place as a means of networking, filming and showcasing my creative projects. It was then that it occurred to me to not think of just survival in my jobs but think of thriving in my career. How can I get my "work" to inform my work?
Each gig became a role. It became a place to inform my soul to new experiences. These opportunities to get valuable face to face time with people from all walks of life. And on at least two occasions, I could test an accent I've been working on. Pursuing this, now a helluva lot more specific, dream of mine has made me realize how building a hustle muscle was key. As my dad has always told me, "You're in a tournament profession. Only the best of the best make it". He's right. This dream means knowing every way the game is played. Every type of player. Every strategy. This unique type of strength training means being okay with failures as they are learning experiences. It means jumping on to the next weightlessly and unburdened. It means embracing uncertainty like the first dive into a pool--it's cold at first but your body begins to adjust.