I started Fallen Branches as an exercise in generating pages, but as I dug into the plot, I discovered that I was writing what would become the most personal movie I have ever made. I’m fond of saying that every character I write is autobiographical in some way, but that’s especially true of this script. And when I was finished with the first draft, some of the things I saw shocked me. For a long time I had no desire to show the script to anyone. I kept telling myself that when I revised it, I would work harder to be less personal, to obfuscate and invent. I thought I would rewrite the whole movie, but when the time finally came to do a second draft, I found that there was very little I could change about the fundamental story.
Over the course of 125 pages, I had painted an unflattering self-portrait—and yet, I had to grudgingly admit, it was sincere. It was a movie about love and resentment, two emotions that are never far from my mind. It was a movie about the pressure I feel to live up to the expectations of others—and my own expectations, too. It was a movie about doubt, about regret. It was me when I was a bastard and me when I let people take advantage of me. More importantly, it felt like it was other people, too.
I’m a collector of great quotes, particularly about the nature of art. Here is my current favorite:
“The desire to avoid embarrassment is the death of art. To be human is to be embarrassing.”
~Young Jean Lee
So, after fighting with my ego for months, I told myself to let it go. When I released the final draft into the wild to be read by dozens of actors and crewpeople, I had made peace with allowing myself to be vulnerable.
I’ve been surprised at the response the script has received. It’s a little movie, after all, about a family. Grandma has died. They’re losing the farm. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times before. But we have amassed a scarily impressive cast, and it’s in large part by virtue of the script. The word that gets thrown around a lot is “honest.” I don’t say this to brag, my point is that a movie like this doesn’t get made unless the script connects with people. I don’t think that what I have done is particularly remarkable, I just set aside my ego and wrote down what was in my head, but… I guess maybe there aren’t many movies that do that. Maybe that honesty has resonated with others.
It used to be that I was loath to explore love or resentment in my films (or doubt, or regret, or fear, or… anything else, really) in any meaningful way, because I was afraid of what people might think of me. Or sex. Noooo, certainly not sex! Talking about sex was anathema to me! And yet here I was, writing about it in a way that was… honest. Not funny, not freaky, not titillating, just… honest.
I’ve never written a sex scene before. I’ve always let my embarrassment get the better of me. But I knew I needed to write one in this movie, precisely because it made me uncomfortable. Sexuality is too big a part of the human experience to put it out of mind or couch it in euphemism (as Hollywood is so fond of doing). There are a number of independent filmmakers now producing what amounts to art-house porn, and although I find their goals politically admirable, I think that they’re missing the point: sex in movies tends to focus on the ways in which the characters are different from us. In this way, it is a microcosm of a bigger problem: movies often otherize their subjects. That’s not something I have any interest in doing.
This otherizing is a symptom, I think, of our tendency for ironic detachment. Ironic detachment is easy. It lets us say things without meaning them. It lets us rely on cliché without seeming too earnest; to wink at the audience. See as an example every look-how-quirky-this-person-or-situation-is independent film ever made, the message of which is always: these people are not like you.
I recently saw an interview with the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He was talking about how astounding it is to realize that the atoms that make up you and me and everyone else in the world were formed in the crucibles of distant stars—how that one piece of knowledge ties us to the universe (and to each other) like nothing else.
That’s the kind of movies I want to make: movies that are predicated not on the idea that we are different from, but the idea that we are the same as. That’s how I wrote Fallen Branches, and I find that through that process, I have become—possibly for the first time in my life—comfortable in my own skin, and capable of taking these lessons with me to my next movie, and the next one, and the one after that.
I rarely do anything other than make movies, because I don’t like to do things that I’m not good at. Like telling you that I love you. But I vow to do things I’m not good at. I vow to tell stories that are not easy, stories that are honest. Going forward, I will never make a movie unless I believe that it deserves to be made, and that I can stand behind the film as an extention of myself. That is a director’s job. I don’t always know what I mean, but I promise that from now on, I will work hard to figure out what I mean and then say it. No excuses. No detachment.
January 28th, 2012