When it comes to filmmaking, self-expression is self-destruction. You are not special. You are not as creative as you think you are. Your movies probably suck. Your ideas are mostly garbage. No doubt you found this out the hard way, too. When you make a film, when you really put your all into it, you bare yourself. Maybe not your whole self, but you open yourself up to failure and disappointment. And the path to success is paved with failure.
It was the summer of 2016. I am speeding south down Interstate 79, towards West Virginia. Ten miles west of the middle of nowhere and 50 miles south of somewhere.
There are only a handful of routes to get from Pittsburgh to where we needed to be in the Midwest, and all of the routes required getting on Interstate 70. So I’m driving south to travel west. That’s when the cicadas attacked.
You can’t quite fathom what it is like driving through a swarm of possibly millions of cicadas unless you have yourself. Their hard exoskeletons explode on the car’s grill and windshield like rotten pieces of fruit hurled by hecklers towards a bad comedian. At one point, the swarm neared biblical proportions and I could, for a moment, understand how the Pharaoh of Egypt felt. I was at their mercy. A swarm of bugs could easily derail what were thought to be carefully laid plans.
I pulled over on the side of the road. The swarm of cicadas near deafening proportions. I can’t hear myself speak inside my car. Two months ago, when I booked this job, I was enthralled at the prospect of producing and working as the Assistant Director (AD) on a feature film. Sure, it was low-budget; sure, we were green, but we knew our shit and we were prepared as filmmakers for anything that was thrown at us. Even if a tornado tore apart the town we were shooting in, we could just tweak our story to take place after a natural disaster. The town was on board, and they had offered up whatever resources they had for our use. We got this. That excitement was five minutes earlier. Now, I’m thinking, “What are we going to do if the cicadas have infested the town we were shooting in? How the fuck are we going to work around that audio nightmare? We have a lot of exterior shots. How are we going to shoot around a biblical swarm of flying bugs?”
And then the swarm was over. I stepped outside, the front of my car a gruesome tableau of cicada legs, guts, and wings. I could hear the swarm’s buzz to the north, getting quieter and quieter but still an unmistakable part of the local soundscape. I stood in awe of the cicada. Their guts splattered all over my car. The buzz they made, still audible despite being miles away. These creatures can take over 15 years to reach maturity, only to die shortly after they’re fully mature. I put myself in the position of the cicada. Would I emerge from the ground after 15 years of living underground, knowing full well that I’ll die shortly thereafter, just to see what the world looks like? Yeah. But then the pragmatic side of my mind kicked the creative side in the teeth and said, “We gotta get back on the road. Let’s not drag this drive out any longer than we already have.”
The personality of a filmmaker is one of two constantly competing personalities. One side is the creative side, the side intrigued by the awe and spectacle of the world. The curious mind that has never aged a day. The other side is pragmatic, grounded, and very cynical. A side that thinks and concerns themselves with every problem that could go wrong. The battle within the filmmaker’s mind is to have both sides cooperate. When I’m directing, I let the creative side win. When I’m producing, the cynical, pragmatic side wins.
But I couldn’t help but wonder for a moment, “Is this a bad omen?”
That answer was of course “No. Omens don’t exist. Ghosts aren’t real. And the only real magic is movie magic.”
As a filmmaker you can’t afford to be superstitious. Especially as a low-budget indie filmmaker. Everything needs to go right. You need to plan for everything. There is no money to throw at any problems that might arise. And despite your best planning, you’ll feel like the sole target of a hundred monkeys throwing shit at the same time. And you have to welcome it. You have to thrive off those problems. Obviously. Otherwise what kind of self-loathing lunatic would pursue such a self-destructive career path. Most filmmakers will tell you they found a sense of personal satisfaction in making films and working on set. As I said, self-expression is self-destruction.