Sand Mandala Moment

By Naomi McDougall Jones

Filmmaking is a fundamentally insane art form to which to dedicate your life.

Let’s for a moment, strip away all of the Hollywood nonsense, all of the impossibly entrenched sexism, all of the sleaze balls and fame chasers, all the cynical power players who have become fundamentally detached from the important work of storytelling.

Remove all of that and what you are left with is an art form in which, before you ever get to make your art thing, you must spend years of your life convincing a battalion of people – producers, investors, other creative teammates, actors (or, more to the point, actor’s agents) – that you are theoretically and practically capable of and qualified to make a good art thing and that you are trustworthy enough to be counted upon to be able to go the considerable, multi-marathon distance of completing that same art thing. Furthermore, you must convince them, through not much more than the strength of your own convictions, that when you (definitely) bring that art thing across the finish line, that it will be resonant in the cultural and social zeitgeist and that a large number of people will, therefore, want to see it and that you/they will make money and win awards.

That is what has to happen before day 1 of actually making the art thing.

If things are going particularly - really quite remarkably well - that period lasts, say, maybe 3 or 4 years (though it is frequently closer to 10+).  Measured elsewise, that’s yards of heartache, miles of small and large indignities, hundreds of sleepless night wondering in the cold terror of 3am what in god’s name you are doing with your life and whether this is all someday going to make a great Q&A story or, alternatively, going to be the story you manically mutter when you, inevitably, end up homeless and insane.

Then, and only then…if you are one of the extraordinarily lucky and industrious ones; if all the zillion factors that have to align in a single moment in order for a film to actually go into production do, you quite suddenly realize in that moment of coalescence, that you now actually have to pull off making the movie. A frequently, after all those years spent waiting, you also realize with a dropping sense of thrill/horror that you have about four weeks to get ready to do so.

At this point, pre-production and production happen, which brings us to the next stage at which film is an inconceivably harebrained art form in which to participate. Because at this point of finally getting to make the movie, somewhere between 40-150 people, many of whom you have probably never met until the four weeks immediately preceding production, suddenly have to come together and, in a mind-blowing dance that is part chemistry, part jazz, and part cirque de soleil.

These hundred or so strangers must each execute their singular job such that a) a requisite number of scenes and days of footage get visually and aurally recorded in a way that functionally add up to a “film” and b)  (ideally) all of those disparate, out-of-order, multi-pronged pieces add up to one overarching artistic act of storytelling such that an audience member eventually watching the film will have as cohesive an experience of art as, say, looking at a painting or a sculpture that one single person has made.

Really consider that for a moment. It’s an entirely absurd proposition. By all rights, it should never work.

Compounding all of this, too, is the reality that, on an indie film especially, you have absolutely zero margin of error once production begins. If you lose one day of shooting, or even half a day of shooting, to any of the three hundred and fifty thousand catastrophes that are definitely to spring up as a natural result of this orchestral event that must suddenly occur on a daily basis; if there is a single major weak link in any department or any actor; you are almost certainly dead in the water.  

Your film will be terrible. And/or you won’t finish your film at all. And/or your investors will hate you, if not outright sue you. At which point, if you are a woman, you will probably never get to make another film in your entire life. If you are a man, there’s an outside chance you’ll get declared a genius and get handed a studio film, but also the chance that you will end up homeless.

Why would anyone sign up for this? Or at least, having done it once, why would anyone go back for another round?

I’ll tell you why.

Because when it works – when you make it through all those years of striving against the odds, of battling forward on the sheer audacity of belief in your own talent and the strength of your story; when that so-crazy-it-should-never-work orchestral dance comes together…it is the closest I have ever felt to divinity. Though I have never tried heroin, I imagine it’s what your first shot of heroin feels like, except 150 times better.

Let me try to boil that down for you by describing a moment from my second feature film, Bite Me, which wrapped production three weeks ago. I remember this moment just as clearly from my first feature, Imagine I’m Beautiful.

I write, produce, and act in my films – I don’t direct them – the incomparable Meredith Edwards does that. I am also able to take my producer hat off fully during production, as I have been blessed with supernaturally amazing and generous producing partners who have allowed me to do that on both my films so that I could concentrate on my performance during filming.

Which is to say that on the very first day of filming for Bite Me - after four years and 48 drafts of the central goal of my life being to get this film to this very moment - I arrive on set at the actor call time, which is to say a half an hour later than the crew call.

So I walk onto location and there are 40-50 people, many of whom I have never even seen before, running briskly around, building in various ways and pieces this scene and this world that I dreamed up all those years ago and that has lived exclusively in my imagination (and that of my fellow creatives) until this very moment. And, suddenly, this film is no longer a belief. It is a fact.

In that moment when I step on set for the first time, there is the sensation that can only be like blowing away a sand mandala you have spent years building. Because all at once this thing that was mine – that I have spent four years obsessively crafting and willing into existence - is now not mine. Or rather it is mine, but it is also theirs, and even more, it is suddenly bigger than all of us.

Now each of us can only dance our parts in this organism that has taken over. Now this art thing, this story, becomes a song that is made and built and sung by a chorus. Now, I get to surrender to whatever will emerge from this mad, messy, wonderful process.

Now the art thing happens.

And it’s absolute fucking magic.

And you know what else? It’s worth every ounce of the rest of it.

Naomi McDougall Jones is an award-winning writer, actress, and producer based in New York City. She has just wrapped production on her second feature film Bite Me, which is now in post-production and also continuing to raise money for post-production (if you’d like to contribute to helping them through post-production, you can find their crowd-funding page here: Naomi stars in the film opposite Christian Coulson (Harry Potter), Annie Golden (Orange is the New Black), and Naomi Grossman (American Horror Story). The film is directed by Meredith Edwards (Imagine I’m Beautiful) and produced by Jack Lechner (Blue Valentine, The Fog of War), Sarah Wharton (That’s Not Us), and Joanne Zippel (Zip Creative).

Naomi’s first feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, which she also wrote, produced, and starred in, won 12 awards on the festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release and is now available on Amazon, iTunes, and GooglePlay.

A pilot she wrote, The Dark Pieces, is now in development for Canadian television.

Naomi is an advocate and speaker for bringing gender parity to cinema. Her TEDxTalk, The Women in Film Revolution Begins With You, can be found on YouTube. She hosts the podcast Fear(ful)less: Filmmaking From the Edge, about her adventures as an indie filmmaker, available on iTunes and GooglePlay.