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What Filmmaking Can Teach You About Life

The lessons you learn on set are sometimes valuable lessons for life.

Some clever person once said that the truth can be found in a grain of sand. Personally, I have long been fascinated by how Leonardo da Vinci created such amazing inventions based on what he learned from studying nature.

I have found that most things in life work as metaphors for other things. When you learn about one thing, you can apply it to another. The process of filmmaking and putting on drama productions has taught me a lot about life. Admittedly, sometimes I’ve failed to apply the same thinking to life though, much to my own detriment.

I started producing when I was 18 years old. Someone told me they had a theatre we could use, so myself and my best friend put on a musical, which we also wrote and directed. From there I went onto producing a film, which I co-wrote with someone. We only shot the trailer, which got stuck in the editing room when I left for London to go to drama school. However, the process taught me a thing or two about producing. Since then, I went onto train as an actor and director (KADA) and producer (UCLA Extension).

After graduation, I led a few other projects and am now busy with three feature length films — two which we are holding auditions for this weekend.

So let’s have a look at what producing a film (or theatre production) can teach you about life.

A Project Is Like Unraveling Yarn

At first, there’s an idea. Then you develop that idea and start reaching out to people. Suddenly, one thing leads to the next, which leads to the next. Before you know it, a thought inside your head has turned into something tangible — your idea has come alive.

What this has taught me is that the intangible can become tangible and not to be afraid to start the process of making it happen. Often you don’t have all the answers up front and that’s OK. All you need is a clear idea of your end goal and then from there take one step after the next to get there. Just one step at a time.

This process reminds me of unraveling yarn, or building a spider web — one thing constantly leads to the next as your project grows and takes shape. Once you start pulling the yarn, things unravel, one by one. And that’s not unravelling in that they fall apart, but rater that one thing leads to the next, until your project comes together, much like one web after another is added to a spiderweb until it forms a pattern.

Whether you want to build a house, set up a business, direct a play, or move to Italy, you have to start somewhere. And once you start, one thing will lead to the next. Some will be detours, but a lot will take you closer to your goal if you just keep it in mind as your end result and it’s aligned with your heart.

When You Reach Out to People, Things Happen

This might sound like a simple lesson, but to me it was actually a really big lesson as a teenager. For the film we were working on back then, For the Permanence of Love, I decided to look up all film production companies in town and email them. I also put up posters all over town saying we were looking for cast and crew.

Now, at that stage I was an amateur. I had taken classes in acting and I had directed a musical, but I had no idea how to actually produce (or for that matter: direct) a movie. So I just did the first thing that occurred to me: emailing and putting up posters.

What I thought would be a small, amateur production, turned into a production filled with professionals. All because of those posters and emails. Professional crew got back to me. I also managed to get a number of friends involved and soon friends of mine were having meetings with Volvo trying to get sponsorship.

I life, if you need a hand, or want to achieve something, reach out to people. They can help you get to where you need to go.

Don’t Be Scared You’re Too Small to Be Noticed

It’s easy to think that what we do is small and insignificant, but as the story goes, many small acts make up a bigger whole. And those small acts can be incredibly important. Thinking that what you do, or what your business does, is of no interest to the general population, is a mistake. If you do something good, get it out there, whether via social media or the press.

The press gets a lot of bad rep, but it can be an incredibly useful tool. And while there are a ton of PR companies out there, picking up the phone and dialing a number, or sending an email, can work wonders.

At 19, I picked up the phone, or sent emails, I can’t remember. Next thing I knew, local magazines and newspapers were interviewing us. After one interview I walked down to the shops the next morning to buy the paper and found myself decorating the billboards.

In life, don’t be scared that what you do doesn’t matter. If you do good, whether for your family and friends, or the world at large, be proud. Be thankful for being you.

Don’t Fear the Professionals

When I was in my teens I called the press with all the enthusiasm of a teenager. I did the same in my twenties when I was doing a play at a festival. In both instances, I got the press.

Yet, in my thirties, I sometimes fret thinking I’m not professional enough to do something. For a number of years I’ve been trying to launch a business (outside my writing/creative/film career) and I got it wrong in so many ways I’ve felt ashamed and humiliated on a number of different occasions. Maybe because of that reason, I still fear people won’t take me seriously.

This week I had to make a decision if we were to hold auditions now, or in a month’s time. I needed to hold them now if we wanted to meet a deadline for distribution and funding for May, as opposed to June. And I wanted to meet that deadline. However, I had huge amounts of fear surrounding getting people to an audition with such short notice. I also felt awkward about calling casting agencies as I don’t have everything on black and white for the entire production — there are still a lot of moving parts.

However, we need that distribution deal, so Monday morning I sat down to create what was needed for the auditions and find the venues. Tuesday I was on the phone all day. And surprise, surprise the feedback was positive. In fact, some went out of their way to help me get people to the auditions.

People generally do their best to help you if you need something, or are working on something great. I’ve found the same when traveling — people have always helped me so long as I just asked for it. Once we get over our own hiccups around asking for help, the rest seems to go smoothly.

That said, I knocked on a lot of doors to make this happen. Knocking on one door and sitting back and waiting for a domino effect isn’t enough. You have to knock on fifty, or more, if you truly want to get stuff moving.

Things Take Longer Than You Think

In film and theatre, it’s rare people meet deadlines. Those who have learnt to schedule properly, have learnt that it takes longer than you think. When I set out to find a venue for the auditions on Monday, I thought it would take me two hours. By end of day I finally managed to find two different venues we could use for the different days.

It is better to have things ready a day early, than a day late, so when you plan, plan for extra time. With kids I’ve learned that setting the table the night before and getting the ingredients ready for breakfast and packed lunches is preferable to thinking you have time to do it all in the morning. There are always unforeseen delays when there’s more than one person involved. Be early.

Expect the Unexpected

When I was working on producing the feature in my teens, the director told me that Murphy’s Law apply to filmmaking. In other words, if something can go wrong, it will.

Now, I’ve found that serendipity also means that lots fo things go right on set. You unexpectedly find that the venue you rented has a perk you can use to your advantage, or the director you met can help you find the actor you need, in addition to directing the movie. That kind of thing.

However, on set there are a myriad of different variables. The weather is one of the most difficult ones to work around. When I was doing a still photography shoot a couple of years back in LA, I hadn’t factored in the wind, for example. It just didn’t occur to me that we’d have to battle to keep people’s hair in check. It’s not like LA is notoriously windy. If it’d had been Cape Town, on the other hand…

From gear breaking and actors being sick, to props going missing and the neighbors deciding to play loud music, there are a lot of things that can go wrong on set. That’s why you are trained to look at the different variables, but even the best of us might miss something. Like the air force deciding to fly their planes right above your set that one day.

This is why it’s important to scout a location properly, as well as taking into account that sometimes there are delays. If there’s a rainstorm you have to wait it out. But you also have to learn to think on your feet. Problem solving needs to become second nature.

In life, knowing how to problem solve is just as essential. If you let every little problem get in you way, you aren’t utilizing your talents properly. Problems can lead to you coming up with better solutions than you first had in mind. Problems might also make you take a different route that’s better than the first one. Problems can also be time wasters, but then try to learn something from them, or use that time to doing something else that’s useful. As the story goes, you can either shout at the traffic in LA, or turn on an audiobook that teaches you something new in life.

You Have to Get Over Yourself

I always say that in business and childrearing, you have to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. It’s not pleasant calling someone’s parents saying their child attacked yours, or vice versa. Whether you’re scared of confrontation, dislike asking for help, have an aversion to calling people, or fret about raising funds, or doing sales, you need to get over yourself if you want your project to become successful, or your kids to have a happy childhood. Yes, you can get other people to work for you and use their strengths, but you still have to do what you have to do. You’re the one in charge, so you have to make it happen.

In short, the sooner you learn there are no excuses, the better off you’ll be.

The Show Must Go On

In life, I sometimes fret about things. I get caught up in my thoughts worrying, being excited, or feeling deterred about what just happened, or what will happen next. When making a movie you don’t have time for that. You need to get on with it. There’s a schedule to adhere to.

Funnily enough, if you keep focusing on what needs to get done instead of worrying about anything else, you feel a lot better and become a lot more productive. The same happens when you stop getting caught up in your emotions in life and just simply get on with it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for reflection — spend ten minutes at night going over the day that just passed and contemplate how you want tomorrow to unfold. But during the day, keep your end result for what you want to create in mind and keep moving.

In Closing

Everything in life can teach us about something else. The more you pay attention, the more you learn. Life can be a cruel teacher, but as soon as you start following your heart and focusing your mind on what you want to create, things start going your way. It takes a lot of effort as your mind is likely all over the place fretting, getting caught up in daydreaming, etc. but if you just continuously refocus on achieving what you want, you will eventually get it. 

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