adjective: causing or tending to cause disruption; innovative or groundbreaking
synonyms: troublesome, unruly, disorderly
A generation ago, being ‘disruptive’ was interpreted as being either a miscreant criminal, or the lazy dude sitting in the back row of class making fun of the teacher.
Today, disrupters run companies or become taste makers in their field. Disrupters are especially important in the creative industry. Art by definition is disruptive as its function is to provide us with a new way to view the world; but the new technological means of making media content today (digital, cost-efficient, distributive) also offers disruption to the traditional processes of making movies.
The assumption is that disruption is a monumental change, resulting in a paradigm shift. But for every ‘tipping point’ of innovation, there are dozens of subtler disruptions occurring, thought-by-thought, decision-by-decision, while developing film and media projects. Disruption today is really just a way of thinking. That means you can be disruptive in almost any thought or choice you make in the filmmaking process, in less obvious ways, but these thoughts and decisions can culminate in a fresh, innovative approach.
Speak to any filmmaker today who is attempting to make films independently in an environment of constraint and you are likely to find a reluctant or unwitting disrupter in the making. When producer/co-director of When They Awake, P.J. Marcellino, set out to make his award-winning first feature documentary, it was the challenges in his path that both inspired and necessitated a subtler, disruptive set of decisions.
On his way to the Calgary International Film Festival where his first feature documentary was selected for the opening night gala, Marcellino offers these 4 disruptive strategies driving their decision-making and filmmaking process.
1) Find partners early on who believe in you.
Don’t work in a vacuum unless you want less than 50 people to ever see your film. Being a disrupter or a maverick definitely does not mean working alone. Find an industry mentor, a champion for your idea or like-minded organization to put wind in your sail, gain early momentum and build a network of advice, credibility or resources. These are people who don’t stare at you, stunned or disapproving, when you pitch them new ideas or ask for help with not-yet-tested approaches. They help you figure out how to do it.
When Marcellino pitched his project to travel to the Northwest Territories (NWT) to explore music, culture, and a new generation of indigenous creators, he found some early supporters:
Raindance Toronto immediately saw potential and offered brand support and a creative approach to developing a sponsored pathway, side-stepping traditional Canadian funders which could have slowed down early momentum. The Raindance connection also helped solidify the director’s relationship once he arrived in NWT with WAMP (Western Arctic Moving Pictures) a local NWT filmmaker group, and the NWT Film Commission, which became instrumental in helping this documentary project along. The director also found a mentor, a creative executive at 90th Parallel Productions with an industry track record. All together this early gathering of steam helped fuel the documentary project and added credibility from the beginning.
2) Become a creative problem-solver in real time, every single day.
This may be the very definition of independent filmmaking. In the present moment and decision-by-decision of making a film, it may be less about executing artistic choices and genius talent than it is about problem solving, wondering, questioning, reflecting, pitching, adapting, pivoting, testing, trying and blue-skying your way through the myriad challenges, problems, obstacles and constraints in development and production. In fact, the ‘creative genius’ in making independent films today lies in ‘creative problem-solving’ and ‘creative producing.’ For example:
You’ll never have enough money. Get over it, and get creative about it. Lack of money is not a reason to not make a film. For the filmmakers of When They Awake, they creatively worked around it by getting a sponsor. Northern travel became the most insurmountable challenge and travelling across the north became an immense financial roadblock to getting their film made. So with nothing to lose they reached out to all the northern airlines and said, “hey, let’s be friends.” They got various responses but in the end creatively found their solution: “Our pitch to Canadian North was simple: this documentary is a travel narrative; there will be airplanes on screen; your airplanes are so beautiful, it’ll be easy to show them – easier than showing your competitors’ airplanes. Let’s talk.” And an airline responded.
Marcellino says “to their credit, the airline believed in us when we were a tiny project, and grew with us as we became a 4-year production in the range of half a million dollars and numerous flights. Suddenly, we’re showing the film at the Opening Gala of the Calgary Film Festival – their corporate headquarters – and they are over the moon. So, get a sponsor, and treat them well. Make them feel like you’re worth investing in.”
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3) Know when to go with the flow.
This doesn’t sound so disruptive, but it is. It’s important to occasionally take your oars out of the water and let it carry you downstream. Constant efforting and pushing can lock you into a rigid mindset and choke off the energy of a film project. Constant efforting directs all your blood into fight or flight mode, into your hands and feet as it were, and leaves nothing in the heart or the belly where creative energy lives. You can miss the muse or the solution standing right in front of you unless you relax your gaze, reduce effort and know when to let go now and then. It might feel like slowing down your process, but it’s really about disrupting it.
Marcellino suggests: “Don’t think you have to have your story all figured out. Let it reveal itself to you, and know that this takes time. It can be unsettling to wait. But if you do, the reward will come eventually. Rushing a story doesn’t help anyone…”
“But if you feel like you’re being pulled in a direction you dislike, get your muscle behind those oars and row like your life depends on it.“
4) Have old and new disruptive role models to inspire you along the way.
How about Shane Caruth (Upstream Colour) for busting up traditional indie distribution? Sean Baker (Tangerine) for digital iPhone innovation? Or Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) for pushing the story world envelop over a cliff? Or Jill Soloway (Transparent; I Love Dick) for seismic shifts in character, identity and sexual politics?
We think we’re the first one with an original approach, but filmmakers stand on the shoulders of giants, and though counter intuitive, look to great practitioners of the past to inspire your own disruptive future.
Marcellino says he and his Co-Director like Werner Herzog and what they call his “Herzogisms”, like this one: “Making a film is like going to the depth of Hell every day. And every day you need to be willing to wrestle your film from the claws of the Devil himself, and then start all over in the morning… if you are not ready for that, then you have no business being a filmmaker.“
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Choose your inspiration, start accumulating your own process, decision-by-decision, and you’ll be well on your way to your own disruptive brand of filmmaking.