04 May Changing minds through hearts.
When I hit the floor with searing back pain for the second time in my life I was stuck on my office floor for two weeks, unable to even sit up. On the 9th or 10th day of my stuckness I tried to go to the airport to get on a plane with my family. It took every bit of effort I had to simply crawl out of the house to get in the cab. I was delusional to think that I would be able to sit on a plane. To everyone else it was clear that there was no way the airline was going to let me on, but no one had the heart to stop me in my valiant effort, or maybe they did but I wasn’t listening. The trip home in the cab was much worse than the trip there. While stuck on the floor I started to film again on our documentary, All The Rage, about Dr. John Sarno and his mind body approach to medicine. We had put it on hold for a while because we couldn’t figure out how to make it. As soon as I had crashed to the ground I screamed for my partner to grab the camera. The upside of my pain was that at least we now had a character to follow for our film.
I had been so desperate to get to the plane because it was going to take us to the Traverse City Film Festival, an event started by Michael Moore to showcase films in his hometown. One of the reasons I was on the floor in the first place was my frustration with the idea that despite the fact that our film Battle for Brooklyn had gotten a tremendous response at the largest doc festival in North America no other major festival would show it. This meant that it got no reviews or attention, and therefore barely existed in terms of the film world. I wrote a personal note to Michael Moore, challenging him to not simply play the same 15 films that had premiered at Sundance that year. The note worked and I had gotten an email from the fest inviting the film and a few weeks earlier.
Due to the lack of festival interest we had decided to open the film in New York ourselves. We were able to arrange for it to be the opening night film of the Brooklyn Film Fest in order to set up for a big opening the following week. The strategy worked. By having a Brooklyn Film as the Brooklyn Fest opener we got mountains of press that snowballed into a flurry of great reviews the following week. The film got a tremendous response, but it did not come without some personal cost.
In the lead up to the release, I had been working 16-20 hour days for a month, waking at night to answer emails, fighting to get our film seen and taken seriously. The stress caught up with me and I began to have trouble walking or standing. Even though I knew that the pain in my leg was caused by my stress, I was unable to stop its increasing grip on me. This probably had something to do with the fact that the pain was telling me to slow down and I ignored it. The more I pushed through the pain, the more insistent it got. Instead of easing up I pushed myself to do q and a at every screening on opening weekend in order to make sure that we got people coming back to the theater. I knew that if we did well in New York we would be able to expand to many other cities. Unfortunately, my logic didn’t work out as expected. Presumably, because the film hadn’t been at many other festivals, and because we were self-distributing it, despite the surprisingly strong box office that opening weekend almost no other theaters in the country would book it. I was repeatedly told that the only reason it did well was because it was a local story. No other theaters believed it would work in their town. None of them had seen it. We were able to book it in LA, which we needed in order to qualify for the Academy Award.
It was hard for me to let go though because I’d worked so hard to get the film seen, and it seemed like some kind of break must be around the corner so I kept knocking on closed doors. A few weeks into this process my body told me in no uncertain terms that I was done working. As I lay on the floor I knew that I had pushed myself beyond my capacity and I vowed to take it easier and push myself a lot less hard. Old patterns die very hard though and almost immediately I set a goal to make it to the festival, arguing to myself that I needed to go there to rest. It was a pretty traumatic experience because my wife and our two kids had gotten up at 4am to take a cab to our 6 am flight. When we got back to the house my wife set to work making arrangements to get to the festival the next day. My friend Tim came over to babysit the kids and I. My mom flew in to help. It was a setback for sure, but I learned a lot from it as well.
The next day when Suki got to the festival I got a call from Michael Moore on her phone. He was kind to make the time to reach out, and he joked that after the letter I’d written he couldn’t believe that I had the gall to not show up. I promised him that I knew what he was talking about because that’s part of what had driven me so hard to make it there.
At the festival Suki was on a panel about documentary filmmaking. One of Michael Moore’s producers pointed out that all of the most commercially successful docs were led by the filmmaker including Michael Moore’s films and Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me”. When Suki got back to New York she and I talked about this issue. I had avoided being in the film, but since Dr. Sarno was such a reluctant character we needed another way to draw the audience in. A few months after our theatrical opening Occupy happened. It directly related to the issues at the heart of our film, and it suddenly made more sense to people. We started to get invited to festivals, and we even got short listed for the Oscar. I continued to get footage of myself as I traveled around the country showing Battle. I also found ways to talk to experts and healers.
We have a somewhat similar experience with our most recent film, Who Took Johnny. We have had a hard time with festivals, so we opened it in Des Moines, IA last week, the town where the action takes place. The response was incredible. We had sold out screenings and over 1000 people came in the first week. We still can’t get anyone to write about it or book it. In this case it is a little bit more understandable that it’s seemingly a very local story, but it’s a good film that resonates with audiences. This time however, I’m doing a lot better about not running myself into the ground. I’m moving forward with a lot more calmness.
On Friday I happened to hear a bit of an episode of “This American Life” that was about political canvassing. Researchers had discovered a couple of very specific details about how canvassers engaged with audiences that made a significant difference in how much the canvassing changed people’s position on an issue. They found that if the canvasser listened and helped the subject find a way to relate the issue to their own life it had a powerful effect. For example if the issue was gay marriage and the canvasser was interested in getting to people to see why it was important they might ask the person if they knew any gay people. That really engaged people. When this was combined with the fact that the canvasser was directly affected by the issue; then the lasting effect was exponentially more powerful. In the case the discussed the canvasser was a gay person canvassing for gay marriage. By creating a situation in which they made room for the subject to access their sense of empathy for an acquaintance as well as the canvasser it became much more possible to embrace a different point of view. No one likes to get lectured and when we are listened to we are more open to listening.
As we work on All The Rage we are using this idea as a kind of guide-post. I have been willing to be in the film because I knew it helped the audience engage with the ideas on a more emotional level. Yet I have also found it to be a bit uncomfortable to hear myself talk. I realize that I can be less present in the footage but still create a space for the audience to hear different people’s points of view on the subject. Like the canvasser in the study on “This American Life” I hope that having struggled with the issues being presented, and listening to others who deal with these problems, both as patients and healers, that I can help to create the space for the audience to embrace them.