Film Stories: Annie and Jimmy

A strange thing happened when the feedback from my early screeners came back. I realized the film was really close. That, beyond a few small changes, it was working. A kind of shock set in as I realized I was actually pulling this off.

And I had no contingency plan for success.

I remembered Annie and Jimmy, and it wasn't just a simple, Oh, wow, I haven't thought of them for 20 years--I mean, I was haunted by their memory for days or weeks. 

Annie and Jimmy were in my film studies class in High School, a class I just happened by chance to take. But it was there that I first saw Citizen Kane and Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. Oh my, The Godfather. That was where I learned to watch films as one who loves films. 

One day, Annie and Jimmy brought in a short film of their own to share, and I was blown away. It was clever and funny and I couldn't believe it had even occurred to them to make it.  To me, movie-making was something the creative elite did in an Oz-like land called Hollywood. No one in my family had so much as a home movie camera. It never occurred to me that it could be a tool of expression as democratic as paper and pen.

But these two came by their creativity honestly. Annie was the daughter of the only artist I knew of in our town. Her mother had a gallery downtown (aka the short stretch of Main Street) and they lived in an apartment above one of the shops there. To me it might as well have been a penthouse and them, creative royalty, for as foreign and glamorous a world theirs seemed to me.

Jimmy's family seemed pretty "normal"--his parents were psychoanalysts or something. The first time I saw his bedroom, he led me there through a well-decorated suburban home and then turned on the light. 

The walls were covered with his artwork--some drawn on paper and some drawn directly onto the painted walls. He said, Wait, check this out, and he turned out the light and turned on a black light and a whole other set of artwork popped out. 

I don't remember anything that came after that moment. That kind of freedom was something I'd never known. 

I remember I once had a choice about my bedroom decor. I was in, maybe 3rd grade and my parents took me to Sherwin Williams to pick out my own wallpaper. I loved a print with small purple flowers, but my mom didn't like it. She talked me into a pattern she chose instead. 

I used to think a certain kind of creativity could be your birthright, like Annie's, or the result of an upbringing that nurtured it, like Jimmy's. And everything I'd done up to this point in the world of creating was all well and good, but this time I'd crossed some invisible line.

My friend Eddie says it was like I stayed on the bull after the buzzer sounded. 

I thought Annie and Jimmy represented a past I missed out on having, that disqualified me from certain dreams.

And this film goes far beyond anything I ever dared to dream as a girl. 

But now I think they were omens of a future yet to come. 

I'm the artist mom now, with a studio in our funky urban flat. My girls and I talk about the grand adventure we will have on tour this summer when I tuck them in at night.

I linger at their door and look at their walls, covered with their artwork. Some drawn on paper, some directly on the painted wall. And then I turn out the light. 

I'm adding screenings of Indie Kindred almost daily over here--faster than I can get them up on the website, to be honest. Find one near you! 


Film Stories: The Big and Small Game

I have this Alice in Wonderland trick I play with creative projects. Do you remember how she would encounter things that said  "eat me" and "drink me" that would make her grow exceedingly big or surprisingly small? 

For me, this elasticity of size is an important part of getting the work done. 

Here's how it works: 

To begin something new, particularly something that is either a bit daunting or so close to my heart that I nearly don't dare (or both), I have to imagine it as very small. Inconsequential and meaningless. 

I speak diminutively about the work.

Everything becomes "this funny little project I'm working on", where we both understand that by funny, I mean crazy.

In other moments, I need the project to grow back to something large in my mind. This happens in times of frustration or weariness, when I'm in danger of throwing up my hands and walking away. Grown large, it's easier to believe things like: 

  • this work matters,
  • it is meant to be made, and
  • people will be glad you did. 

I also need to grow the project large near its completion, to help me believe it is worthy of sharing. And not just in a slipping it out the mail slot way, but in a shouting from the roof-tops kind of way. This, for the record, is far more difficult than the making of the thing itself. 

With this project, I'd only ever planned to make a 10-minute short film. I never would have dreamed of doing anything larger for my first film project. 

It's wasn't until I'd stitched all the pieces together and typed up the screenplay that I counted the pages and realized I'd accidentally made close to an hour-long film. 

Looking at the length of the project and our plans for sharing it, I can see that it became something beyond anything I ever would have said yes to or had the courage to start. 

I had enough courage for a 10-minute, funny little film project and not one ounce more. 

The drawback of the Big and Small Game is that by the end you can bounce back and forth between "it's really something" and "it's really nothing" until you've lost all bearings with the truth. 

But this is what I know right now: its size does not exist as a static, measurable quality. This project is a gift. Now it is up to its recipients to receive it or not, to cherish it or critique it, and the response of others to my offering is not my responsibility.

Though I will confess to you, my friend, that you--well, I still hope that you receive it with love because with love it was created and given. 

This weekend Indie Kindred debuts at The World Domination Summit and then begins a Coast to Coast tour.  Find a screening near you and follow the adventure in real time on Twitter or Instagram (@jenleedotnet).


Film Stories: Being Seen, Part II

In so many ways, the making of Indie Kindred has mirrored what the film itself is about. It was born in friendship and conversation, and so many people helped make it better than anything I could have done on my own. 

It's vulnerable to ask for help--we all know that.  But imagine taking your first attempt ever at a movie trailer (which you can feel is not quite right) and showing it to your friend who has just finished showing his film at Sundance.

Imagine playing it for the trainers at the Apple store, who are so not your target audience, and looking out the window and pretending you are somewhere else entirely while it plays, so as not to climb out of your skin. 

Think of sending your first cut to other film friends--to a screenwriter in L.A. and someone who used to work in programming at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

It is so hard. 

And yet, all these people were able to reflect the work back to me in a way I really needed--so I could see where it was and where it needed to go. 

It was fine before. But it is so much better on the other side of a collective wisdom.

We must let ourselves and our work be seen to get there. 

**Remember: Today's the last day to order from our online shop until September! 

Film Stories: This is the story.

In college I called it my "friend alarm". It was this internal radar system that would signal when I met someone who was somehow kindred to me. Like Katie, the girl at the video store who always commented on my selection of foreign films.

But with story, the internal signal feels more like a sonar system, pinging back softly when it's encountered something that's meant to be woven into the tale. 

It can happen in unexpected moments, when I am sitting in front of a fireplace with dear ones and there is so much love and a contentment draped over us and I feel it: This is the story. 

Or it happens months before I even have a camera to catch it, across the cafe table from a friend. Out of all our conversation, my mind sticks to one place and lingers there for weeks.  

This is the story. 

It's difficult to explain, and I imagine it's not easy to teach because for me it's an intuitive experience, rather than an intellectual one. 

I collect them all--the images and sounds--like squares of fabric and then I sit back and look for how they fit together, what pattern and design will hold them all. 

And then, like a quilt-maker whose materials are ideas and narratives and possibilities, I stitch them all together. 


Film Stories: Being Seen, Part I

We were sitting in a beautiful kitchen while our daughters played upstairs, sipping tea and telling each other true things about or life. She was a professor at the NYU Film School. (Of course she was.)

And then there was that dreaded moment--she asked what I did. 

And I told her. 

And then she did something I never expected: she got excited, and intrigued. Here I was, right in her kitchen: a self-taught artist. 

I took him to lunch, hoping for some advice. It was one of those moments when your dream still feels fragile, like just one un-believing person might kill it. 

We were new friends, and I still couldn't even tell him all I did. I vet people slowly, I said. If I tell them one thing I do and they don't freak out, then next time I might tell them another one. 

But I was clear: to bust out the whole laundry list at once would make me sound like a lunatic. 

Today I was telling him just one: I wanted to make a short documentary film. 

And bless him, he had no idea where I was coming from or what skills I did or did not have. And yet he did not look too dubious when he said, Are you shooting it yourself? 


And then he gave me a tutorial on DIY film equipment options (and saved me over $1000). 


Film Stories: Anne

I started the way we so often do--by looking for someone with more talent to pass the assignment off to.

Don't get me wrong--there were some moves I suspected I had, like being able to locate the story and weave it together. But doing the shooting and filming myself--well, honestly it didn't even occur to me. I was smitten and in awe of what other artists could do through the lens. 

And I knew one of them would be perfect.

That's when I reached out to Anne, essentially in the hopes that she would make this movie for me, I mean with me. Anne is woven most tightly in our kindred fabric and we were excited about the idea of working together, but our logistics would simply not line up.

I was walking down the sidewalk to my daughter's school when it really sank in.

I had to shoot it myself.

But here we are, a year later.  When I look at what Anne and I have made since then (my first documentary done, and Anne's screenplays written and her short film just submitted to a festival), it only confirms what I was reluctantly seeing at the time.

We needed to do our own work.

And it was time to do it.