Whenever I’m feeling burned out with filmmaking, I go to the well of Cassavetes. Maybe he was a megalomaniac, maybe at some points he was a borderline compulsive liar. Certainly he alienated a lot of people, according to some of the anecdotes reported in Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes. But whatever else he was, he was someone who believed in the power of art and self-expression with more passion, fire, and tenacity than most of us have the strength to muster in the face of propriety, economics, and social order. His movies have a cutting, inescapable honesty; he was always fighting very hard to achieve this, at the expense of film stock and some of his closest relationships. But the vitality of his films is unparalleled. His characters are often flawed and floundering, but you get the sense that all of them are truly living, feeling every emotion with a profundity and passion that sometimes seems as though it’s constitutionally outlawed in a staunchly polite, externally inoffensive seeming society like Canada’s.
Anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy of Cassavetes on Cassavetes and naturally within the first 50 pages he starts speaking to the exact issue that Lizzie and I have been emotionally hot-potatoing all year: how to make art while also having a career. He’s talking primarily about actors, because that was his experience, but you can apply what he’s saying to anything that gets lumped into that awfully over-simplified conglomeration we call ‘the creative industries.’
“Actors come into the business and have great enthusiasm because they think they’re going to make it. They think they’re going to be great. Then people tell them they’re not so great, and they feel they’re not so great. And the one thing they’ve always wanted in their lives — to be great — they realize they’re not going to be. Their own vision is crossed out and replaced by the vision of the way other people see them. They have no dream anymore; they only have a profession. They are businessmen. They are looking to make a dollar; looking to enjoy themselves the best way they can; looking not to make too many enemies in meeting people because then they won’t be working. They are looking to please the public, please the writer, the director, everybody — so that they are not concentrated, they’re not contained. Working for money and working under pressure they can no longer spin the dream for an audience…
…An actor must really believe what he’s doing, and he mustn’t care whether he’s good or bad at the moment, it’s only the creative effort that counts. And you can’t have that if you have some ulterior motive, like making money, pleasing people, enjoying yourself at a cocktail party that may lead to a bigger job. The great danger for actors is this success drive…
…Actors keep on driving for that big opportunity, selling everything in their past just for that one big opportunity. That opportunity comes again, but by that time they’ve sacrificed all the things in which they really believed and they feel like hypocrites. They get in a group of people that haven’t done quite as much, and they talk a creative game. They talk about ethics and creativity — but they’ve perjured themselves all through their careers. It’s not their fault. It’s just the society in which we live and the nature of the business and the nature of the need to express yourself.”
Lizzie and I have both been so focused on making money this year, trying to get out of the debt we’ve accumulated over the course of our twenties by affecting a middle-class lifestyle without a middle-class income. And we’ve done well, and it’s been exciting. But what happens is that it becomes impossible to see a choice as anything but a commercial choice. You cannot separate the joy of writing from the punishment of corresponding missed commercial opportunities, time spent in what could be labelled ‘self-indulgence’ when it could’ve been spent directly making money for yourself and other people. I believe in a balance of art and commerce. With filmmaking, often you don’t have a choice — the materials and labour are so cost-prohibitive, you need to reconcile the degree to which how you decide to spend money is going to influence the art that you make. But how easy it is to fall into a trap of understanding ‘success’ in purely commercial terms, the terms under which you tend to receive the most validation from your friends and family, and how pervasively this can corrupt your opinion of yourself and your art.
Feel free to take this opportunity to revisit the greatest rant in the history of filmmaking.
Be kind to each other out there.
Dylan – Edmonton, AB