Film School Blog

The Price of Compromise & What I Learned From Group Projects

Let’s talk about group projects – something of which I’m sure we all have fond memories.

There comes a time *cue dramatic music* when people unite to work toward a common goal, one that’s been clearly articulated and understood by all involved. The group’s roles have been specified so as to give each person their purpose and to promote efficiency. Organization and communication is maintained throughout by each member, thereby delivering the desired result by the due date.

Right?

Wrong.

If you do have memories like that of group projects, then congratulations, you’ve unlocked one of the greatest secrets of how to properly interact with humans. Please write this blog post for me.

These are not my memories, and I’m sure not how many people feel about group projects. My question is simply, why? Why is it so hard to work with other people? It doesn’t have to be.

(I should probably take a brief moment to tell my group members who are reading this that working with them was far superior to my past experiences, and mainly this post is an exploration of how anybody can work better together in or out of film projects. So, xoxo I love you girls very much and would be more than happy to work with you all again.)

Probably what Einstein based his relativity theory on. 

Probably what Einstein based his relativity theory on. 

The way we look at ourselves in a group projects, I think, is the same fallacy we use to assert whether or not we’re good drivers. Ask someone to recount their last interaction with a bad driver and I can guarantee a few stories will immediately pop into their minds. Ask them to recount the last time they were a bad driver and suddenly they’re rather forgetful, or just a cool-headed transcendent being who’s never made a mistake on the road, probably even off the road. Again, if this is you please come give me driving lessons.

The same fallacy goes for group projects. Every meme or internet post I’ve seen related to this constantly assumes that that individual is the one who carries the workload. Now, I can think of a few people who’d be honest about not holding their end up, so I’m definitely generalizing here, but as a whole, I think we like to look at our contributions from a first-person point of view, and from our side of things, we’re doing pretty good.

Normally I'm a Phil, but this time I was definitely a Doug. No one was a Stu or Alan, which was wonderful.

Normally I'm a Phil, but this time I was definitely a Doug. No one was a Stu or Alan, which was wonderful.

I think it’s important to mention where I fall short on this, because I have a tendency to project my own flaws rather than take ownership of them. I’m embarrassed to say that unlike most of my previous group projects, I fell short on what I could contribute to this one. And even worse – I knew it. Under the guise of not wanting to be bossy, I detached myself and didn’t help my group as much as I could to help us be more productive.

Lesson #1: Take ownership of your flaws and use them as an opportunity to grow and make yourself better.

So why is it hard to work with other people? Why do people like me who so often wind up doing the bulk of the work in a group project even fall short sometimes and become the weakest link? I’m not positive this is the answer, but I think it might have something to do with that group member not having their idea recognized, or being able to find any reason to be passionate for the idea that is proposed. We’ll take care of things simply if we, well, care about them. Obviously, this was a film project I didn’t care too much about making.

Rewind to the night when my group project first met to hash out ideas. The "Choose Your Own Adventure" project prompt asked us to “create a story where the viewer has the ability to choose how the narrative evolves. The story should have three possible endings. VFX requirement: 3 visual effects shots involving compositing must be included.”

We were all sitting around a table, pitching the partially realized ideas in our minds, trying to find common ground. Each idea really demonstrated the style of each of us as filmmakers: Mo wanted to make a film about privilege you’re born with, and how that “choice”, if we were offered an opportunity to make it, profoundly impacts our day to day lives. Alex wanted to make a film that defied our presumptions of what the “wrong” or “right” choice is by flipping the anticipated consequence. Mattie wanted to make a comedy based off of some sort of reality show. I wanted to make a documentary that disputed the idea of having a choice, as the “adventure” would just wind up being what actually happened in reality. Alex and I really liked Mo’s idea, but Mattie didn’t think 285 was the right venue to make it. We all liked my idea of first person POV and Mattie’s of keeping it funny, but still couldn’t quite agree on a story.

So we

compromised.

The fact that  this  is what I was sketching in my notebook as we came up with the first film idea speaks volumes.

The fact that this is what I was sketching in my notebook as we came up with the first film idea speaks volumes.

And wound up making a comedy-documentary-role reversal-ambiguous choice type film. I honestly don’t even remember the plot because 1) the Friday night we filmed was a terrible and traumatizing night for me (another story for another time, but can most precisely be described as a clusterfuck, my favorite English word) and 2) it was truly so awful that we trashed it the next day and came up with a new idea. The price of not offending anyone was that everyone left unhappy and unfulfilled.

I was so disenchanted and exhausted from the first film that I didn’t even care to contribute to the making of the next one. Mattie wrote an entire script in a few hours (thank you, dude) and Mo and Alex went and filmed everything in a day and half, then delivered the footage to me to edit. Major kudos to my group for their resilience and turnaround time.

What results is a film closest to Mattie’s initial idea:

I wrote an email to my professor asking him to help me understand why it is that in filmmaking, an art that is inherently collaborative, compromise feels inevitable. What he wrote back was so perfect and insightful I’m just going to post it here:

“As for collaboration and compromise - I do NOT agree that compromise is inevitably associated with collaboration, not at all and I do NOT compromise. For example, my job as director is to hire and surround myself with the best creative minds. Then it is my job to be open to their ideas - if I did a good job with hiring the right people, their ideas more often than not will be spot on. I want to be challenged. I want to change my mind, my thoughts. I want to be shown a better way to do something. Collaboration has nothing to do with compromise - if a great idea is brought up, I take it and that is collaboration. If a weak idea is brought up, I ignore it.” –James Savoca

Well there ya have it, folks. That’s how you ensure that you’re producing work you care about, you’re passionate to make, and that everyone around wants to be there to make it: you don't compromise.

Lesson #2: Don’t compromise.

Where we went wrong in our round table discussion is that we let a good idea fall flat. Mo’s idea was one that the majority of the people in our group wanted to make. It was damn hard to make, that’s for sure, but it was a compelling story that three of us wanted to tell. It was our job to persuade Mattie to come around and see why now is always the best time to do something, and if she still didn’t want to make it, then rather than forcing her to be part of a project she didn’t feel comfortable making, we would have found another group member.

Lesson #3: Surround yourself with people who want to reach the same common goal.

We shouldn’t ever deny ourselves the films we want to make simply because we don’t think it’s the right time or that other people don’t want to help us make them. Start this very moment and the people who want to be a part of the process will become apparent once you have something to show for it.

Lesson #4: Now is the best time to do anything.

In my opinion, the most successful group project that was turned in was successful for that precise reason: the crew had clear roles, clear time frames, and a clear story. When I asked why they it came out so nicely, Neal Mulani, the writer and actor, said that it wouldn’t have happened had he not had faith that this idea was a worthwhile one to explore. His group didn’t really resonate with it at first, but he said that he was responsible as a storyteller to explain this idea more thoroughly and simply, “tell his crew why it was worth their time”.

Lesson #5: Tell people why what you have to say is worth their time.

And voilà, here you have the beautifully executed and hilarious short film, “A Murder on Menlo”.

Crew: Maria Alvarez, Neal Mulani, Alia Tompkins, and Chandler Desforges                                    Link:  https://interlude.fm/v/Mx4NDM

Crew: Maria Alvarez, Neal Mulani, Alia Tompkins, and Chandler Desforges                                    Link: https://interlude.fm/v/Mx4NDM

Yesterday in 285 this conversation about group projects continued, but rather than looking at the group as a whole, we spent time to reflect on how we as individuals contribute to the larger objective. After all, the only thing we can control is how we approach any situation. Attitude carries enormous weight in anything, and it’s important to be introspective on what your strengths are as much as your weaknesses. Interestingly enough, Juli, our professor, mentioned that it’s often the best thing about us that’s also the worst thing about us, which is something I had never thought about before. Here’s what I wrote down:

Strengths:

1)    I care a lot.

2)   I make things now.

3)   I take risks.

Weaknesses:

1)    I’m impatient.

2)   I don’t ask for help when I need it.

3)   I want to control things too much.

Some other strengths I heard people mention in class is that they are good at directing actors (two people said this), they’re punctual, reliable, good at rat husbandry (long live Ling Ling), adaptable, and audacious. A weakness someone admitted was being late to everything, which Juli reestablished as maybe just being someone who gets deeply absorbed in what they’re doing to notice time passing.

If you’re willing to share, what would you say are your strengths and weaknesses?

The Emotion Project

Our first assignment in 285 was “The Emotion Project” where we were asked to create a 90 second visual piece where the sole objective is to make the viewer experience the emotion you’ve selected.

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285 - My Favorite (and most important) Film Class

To briefly give context to the posts which will follow: I’m currently taking the best class ever, CTPR 285. If you don’t go to USC then that means nothing to you, so let me explain: 285 is a class near and dear to my soul because in my opinion, it epitomizes precisely why filmmaking is so challenging, so stimulating, and so much fun.

Me, creepily recording a GoPro video of Chandler eating a bagel in 285, because here there are  no limits.

Me, creepily recording a GoPro video of Chandler eating a bagel in 285, because here there are no limits.

The philosophy behind the class is that SCA wanted to give first year students an opportunity to start making movies right away—something many film schools don’t offer. In making these films, we’re supposed to be "unlimited in our creative potential". We’re supposed to experiment, to make films outside of our comfort zone, and strive to be as emotionally authentic as possible.

We’re encouraged to think of impossible scenarios, film ideas we’d stop ourselves from making because “it’s too hard,” “the idea is dumb,” “no one will like it,” “I don’t have the right equipment,” (god, I've said this one at least 50 times) --and a thousand other excuses we as film students are experts at pulling out of our asses-- and told to go make them. Not tomorrow. Not in a few years. But today. This class can essentially be boiled down to the Nike slogan. 

SCA did this mainly to capitalize on the fact that we as young, naïve, and charmingly enthusiastic filmmakers need some place of catharsis. Past examples have shown that really original, unique, compelling films have come out of this class. (This video, for example, is one a group of production students made last year, which I’ve watched six times in the last three days. Comedy gold.)

Gee, *scratches head* I wonder why it is that these projects are often more interesting for audiences to watch and more rewarding for us to make? Maybe because there is no pressure, there are no expectations, and that we’re allowed to make mistakes inspires us to be audacious. In fact, we’re encouraged to fail as much as possible because failure is the best way to learn.

So riddle me this, readers: why does SCA imply that 285 is something to just “get out of our system”? Do they assume that our pure and unadulterated passion to make movies will be sullied by the harsher details of film reality: budget constraints, caffeine highs, long hours, and hard, tedious, exhausting work in the next three years? This is why so many filmmakers burn out in their 30s/40s, or no longer generate any interesting content. They’re no longer offered an opportunity to make films for the same reason which got them started: for the sake of storytelling.

One of my all-time favorite quotes that I try to remind myself of everyday.

One of my all-time favorite quotes that I try to remind myself of everyday.

Will my next three years in SCA, or for the rest of my film career effectively squash my “earthly pursuits”? No, hopefully and probably not since I acknowledge this risk and will remain honest with myself about what kind of work I’m producing. Lest we forget that one of the best ways to make days melt into seconds is to spend time dreaming up impossible worlds, wandering aimlessly about and noticing every detail, every story that surrounds us, and to living synonymously with our earthly pursuits. 

The last six weeks have resulted in tremendous amounts of growth and learning opportunities which I will spell out more specifically in future posts.

Here’s a Vimeo album I made where I’m trying track down the films all 50 of the production students make each week and save them somewhere, and I'll be mentioning these in future posts to illustrate more clearly what it is I'm learning about becoming a better filmmaker and storyteller.

Film School Blog - The Beginning

Someone* wise once mentioned that a cool idea or side project would be maintaining a blog during my time in film school where I post what I’m doing, what I’m making, what questions I have, and most importantly, what I’m learning during my four years here.

And I thought, “Whoa. That’s a killer idea dude. Good thing I already keep a journal where I write down exactly those things.”

And he said (I’m paraphrasing), “Yeah, but your attending this school is hella rad and you’re privileged to have this information. What if other people could learn from it too?”

See folks, this is why having smart friends is important.

I wanted to start it at the beginning of this semester, but seeing that we’re already six weeks in (wtf?), I’m going to keep the posts of what’s already happened short and sweet, and hopefully be disciplined enough to write longer, more insightful posts from now on.

I’ll probably hate myself for saying this, but if I don’t have some form of liability then I know I won’t do it… but I’m going to try and post something at least once every two weeks, at best every week. This endeavor honestly scares me a bit because I don’t have any expectations for it really, I just hope that the outcome is positive.

Love at first Fairbanks.

Love at first Fairbanks.

I want to be clear though that this blog is not an objective review of film school. I have plenty of opinions that anyone is more than welcome to disagree with, but all I can post that is completely honest is my own personal experience here at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. My experience is unique from people who did, will, or do currently attend this school, and I don’t intend to assign any ubiquity to my thoughts or opinions.

Yes, attending USC’s film school means I have access to information many people don’t get a chance to experience, but I’m more than willing to divulge what it is that I learn if anyone out there is interested in listening. I feel very privileged to be here learning how be a better filmmaker, a better storyteller, and a better learner, which the subjects I’m most passionate about. I hope this blog can be mutually beneficial. :)

(*Aforementioned wise person has his own really incredible website filled with insight on what it looks like to live life learning full time: thecharliegriffin.com)