Breaking and Entering: Filmmaking for the Uninitiated

Just over a year ago, following a string of disastrous graduate jobs, I finally admitted to myself that being a general punchbag for a narcissistic fantasist with too much pocket money is, in fact, soul-destroyingly futile. Instead, I taught myself to edit, took a storyboarding course and decided it was finally time to revisit that childhood dream of becoming a film director.

Being pretty clueless with no industry ties or contacts, it was clear that I was setting myself up for many years of abject poverty, general disappointment and yapping at the heels of low-budget indie outfits who may or may not turn out to specialise in donkey porn for an East Timor niche market. These facts I was prepared for. Others I was not. For those of you considering embarking upon a career as a teeny tiny unappreciated minnow in a vast nepotistic ocean, here are my top four nuggets of wisdom to help prepare you for your glorious quest.

1. The Film Industry is a Breeding Ground for Misogynistic Halfwits.

When I was nine, my grandfather told me that I couldn’t be a film director because I was a girl and girls don’t get to be film directors. Having never found this biological quirk to have been much of a hindrance before (and bearing in mind that my grandfather was also an alcoholic who would frequently call at 4am to garble lines from Macbeth over and over until someone hung up on him) I decided not to set too much store by his gin-addled career advice. Terrifyingly, it seems he was a little bit right.

For the first six super-keen months, I found myself at industry networking events where I was variously told that I ‘don’t look like an editor’ that ‘women aren’t really seen as directors’ or, at best: ‘You mean you want to be a producer?’ It used to be said that behind every great man is a great woman; behind every great director there is, necessarily, a formidable producer. Producers, then, as the all-organising, multi-tasking, non-limelight-stealing backbone of filmmaking are, according to this patriarchal logic, singularly permitted to be women. For other roles: girls – expect to fight tooth and nail for every tiny grain of respect, and to have any beginner’s gaps in your professional knowledge attributed to that glaing lack of a penis between your legs.

2. Beware the Mentals.

My first ‘job’, as an Assistant Director on a short film, consisted of disaster management for a delusional egoist who had cast himself and his family members in a film about a man who has an affair that costs him his marriage. In the process, he fucked up his own marriage so resoundingly that I spent most of my time providing counselling and tissues to his distraught better half.

He then asked me for feedback on his next project: a short film about child molestation. This he described, with characteristic modesty, as the most powerful, unflinching work about this issue ever to be conceived. In fact, it turned out to be a sick, incomprehensible and utterly offensive tirade that included lengthy ‘stage directions’ debating the existence of God before inexplicably giving way to an eight page poem dedicated to Elizabeth Fritzl. My gentle suggestion that this was, perhaps, not the most sensitive way of approaching the subject matter led to a torrent of abuse telling me that (1) our friendship was over, (2) I was ‘a silly little girl’ and (3) he hoped I would live out my days in perpetual terror of my own children being abused, as just reward for failing to recognise his insurmountable genius.

3. It’s All About the Hierarchy.

Film is second only to the military in its rigid upholding of professional hierarchies. It is probably no accident that the Director of Photography on the last feature film I worked on still carries the bullet wounds from a previous stint in the Italian Special Forces.

Occasionally, on small, no-budget shorts, everyone pulls together in mutually respectful collaboration and harmony, suffusing the set with joyous enthusiasm that prevents you caring that the shoot has run over by seventeen hours, you haven’t eaten since Tuesday and your last tube left last week. Most of the time, however, being at the bottom of the food chain, your main purpose is to lurk miles from the action in the freezing cold, luring wild animals away from set by feeding them strips of your own flesh, whilst somewhere far away a psychotic 1st AD screams hysterical abuse down a walkie talkie because you forgot to remind her to tie her shoelaces and the Focus Puller’s sandwiches are cut into the wrong geometric shapes.

If you can stick out the ritual humiliation for long enough, you may be rewarded with your very own minion to torment – and one day, maybe even a whole crew to bully, threaten and cajole. This is called ‘making a film’.

4. Do it for Love. Not for money.

There’s nothing like that magical feeling when it all falls miraculously into place, better and more beautifully than you ever imagined it would. Sadly, that feeling is rarely the herald of any real world pecuniary relief. So don’t get carried away just yet: you’ll still need that bar job to pay the rent.

And This is Where the Carrot Gets Turned Into Poo

Life and the Afterlife, as Told by a Five Year Old

For almost a year now, every Saturday afternoon at 3pm, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed child prodigy has been deposited upon my doorstep. This charmingly precocious bi-lingual five-year-old is Genius Child* (GC) and my loosely defined weekly mission, for which I am not entirely sure I am qualified, is to Teach Him Useful Stuff.

GC is brilliant fun. He’s exactly the kind of witty, cheeky, chatty and altogether likeable child that makes you forget that most children are screaming, snotty little brats, and start to entertain a dangerously romanticised view of what parenthood will probably be like. With the notable exceptions of writing neatly and colouring within the lines, two things I’ve never been that fussed about, he’s remarkably good at just about everything, including football, chess and, more recently, dispensing advice on how to make homemade tortellini – from scratch.

Moreover, like many children, GC has an extraordinarily active imagination and the ability to ask seemingly straightforward questions that are, in fact, disconcertingly difficult to answer. Fortunately for me, his parents are intellectually curious, religiously unaligned and generally chilled out enough not to question the fact that a lesson that might start off being about Tutankhamen’s tomb or where rain comes from regularly descends into crashing saucers covered in flour together to show how tectonic plates create earthquakes, lengthy discussions about protests in the Middle East or why different civilisations have picked different gods, and pages and pages of scribbled, disconnected diagrams showing what happens when particles heat up, how gravity works, why the Earth has different seasons and how meteors and resulting giant ash clouds could have killed off the dinosaurs – frequently annotated by GC with wonderfully linear comments like “well, why didn’t they just stand there?” or “what would have happened  if they’d built their nests on top of THIS rock?”

It is precisely this linear, wholly credulous train of thought which makes dealing with very young, very bright kids so fascinating: they take everything in, and they take everything literally. At times, I find this enlightening. The questions GC asks have a unique ability to cut straight through the crap, reminding me just how much received rhetoric, cultural conditioning and intellectual laziness contextualises meanings that I think of as definitive, or arguments I had presumed to be self-evidently logical. You’re forced to realise how much of what you say is indirect, obscured by metaphorical, posturing or implicit language, or validated only by reference to assumptions and uncertain principles you have long ceased to investigate and no longer fully understand. It exposes how little we as a species think to examine our perceptions, and the daily interactions we have with the world around us.

Most of the time, though, it’s just really funny.

This week, for example, having just returned from a trip to Italy to visit his grandparents, GC arrived at the lesson enthused about a programme he had watched on Italian TV which had explained in some depth the internal workings of the human body. Keen to impart this wondrous new knowledge to me, he then set about recreating the relevant diagrams, accompanied by an excellently remembered (and translated) verbal explanation of what the process involved. It went like this:

“That’s great,” I said. “Very well done. Just one thing – these balls you’ve drawn, the white ones here, they’re oxygen coming in, and the multicoloured ones, that’s carbon dioxide going out. You remember, we learnt about this a few months ago?” GC looked at me wearily. “Yes,” he said. “I know that already. But what this programme was saying is, they’re really little coloured balls”.

Feeling it unwise to confuse him further, I then moved on to the prepared lesson, which concerned the building of the pyramids in Egypt. Reading aloud from his textbook, GC suddenly broke off mid-sentence to ask me whether ordinary people were allowed to have tombs in the pyramids, which in turn led on to a conversation about the comparative benefits of being preserved, buried or cremated.

“But why would you want to burn someone up?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “Some people like the idea of their ashes being scattered in places they liked when they were alive. The sea, for example.”

“That’s a bit disrespectful to the fishes, throwing bits of body all over them. Anyway why would you care, once you’re dead? It’s not as if you’d know about it.”

Well, quite.

A few moments passed in thoughtful silence as GC contemplated the possibility of post-mortal sentience.

“One thing I don’t get about the afterlife,” he proclaimed, at length. “If I have to leave my body behind, then how will I remember anything? I wouldn’t have a brain.”

“Well… I think the theory goes that the memory and all the rest of it goes up with the soul, which is a sort of ghost-version of you.”

“But what about my legs? How would I play football without any legs?”

“Well I suppose you’d – I don’t know. Maybe they’d give you a new body when you got up there. Specially built for the afterlife.”

“What if they forgot something? Like my nose?”

“You mean, what if they ran out? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s how it works.”

GC pondered.

“To be honest” he said. “It all sounds a bit silly to me. I don’t think there IS an afterlife”.

Richard Dawkins, eat your heart out.

*Name has been changed