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How Do You Know If or When You’re Good at What You Do?

How Do You Know If or When You're Good at What You Do?

I’m sent a lot of scripts to read and films to watch on a weekly basis, and I do read and watch as many as my time will allow, which isn’t much; but I’ve been doing this long enough that I can say assuredly, I’ve watched quite a lot of films and read many screenplays over the years, since this site was launched.

I don’t really have some rigid method of picking which film I will watch and when, or what script to read. It really comes down to which ones get my attention first – and that could be, in the case of films, the film’s synopsis and trailer; and in the case of a script, the synopsis first, and how the writer presents himself/herself in the email they send me, second. And if I’m already familiar with the filmmaker’s or writer’s past work, then even better.

As I’m sure every filmmaker already knows well enough, filmmaking is a resource drain – money, time, and people. It’s certainly not for the weak. Yes, advancements in technology have democratized the process, allowing more of us the opportunity to create content, but that doesn’t mean that everyone with a copy of Final Draft, a camera and light kit, is a filmmaker.

Spike Lee and many others have stressed this a lot: know your craft! Especially before you invest tons of money and time into producing a film, whether it be a short or a feature. Whether you’re a writer, director, actor, DP, editor, FX pro, sound designer, etc, etc, etc… know your craft!

Why go through the entire process – especially at the indie level, where money and time certainly aren’t a luxury – if you’re not aiming for the heavens from the moment you open up Final Draft, for you writers out there, and type that first “action” statement, or line of dialogue?

The studios can afford to throw away millions of dollars on weak material, because they can. It’s almost as if they’re throwing darts at a cement wall, hoping that one eventually sticks, and is a box office smash, makes them a ton of money, which in turn makes up for the other 10 films that lost money, or just broke even.

But at the indie level, you just don’t have that luxury in opportunities; so every outing should get your very best effort, and nothing less – at the writing stage, while directing, acting, shooting, in post-production, etc. Every film should be your best film!

The common saying is that, it all starts on the page – the written word; if it’s not on the page, then you’re bound to run into problems while you’re shooting, or in post-production, in trying to find your story, or a character’s arc, etc. Of course that’s not a steadfast rule. Some filmmakers prefer to improvise while shooting, although they usually still have some outline of what the story is that they’re trying to tell; Or, in the case of a Mike Leigh for example, he often workshops his projects with his cast, for many months, before a single foot of film is exposed to light. So that by the time they actually start shooting the film, the actors have practically become the characters they play in the film, because they’ve not only lived with them for so long, they actually helped develop them during the workshop period.

But I’m assuming most indie filmmakers don’t have that luxury either – casting your actors first, and then workshopping an outline for 6 months, developing the script as you go, before filming.

So it starts with the script. Yes, what you end up with after post-production is complete, may not be exactly what you started with, at the script stage; but, as a general rule, any film instructor will likely emphasize the need to make sure your script is solid before moving on.

So how do you know you have a good script that’s ready to go into production? When you’re confident that you have something that’s definitely sound and solid? I’m focusing primarily on writers/filmmakers in this case, but it’s a question that I’d ask all artists – actors, musicians, editors, cinematographers, and so on. 

I’ve posed the question to filmmakers in the past, during interviews; and the one common reply I receive is that, it starts when you present your creation to others for the first time, for constructive feedback.

But here’s the catch – don’t just give it to your friends; unless of course you have a smart, eclectic group of friends who aren’t afraid to challenge you. But even if you do, as one person said to me, it’s important that you expand your COI (circle of influence), and make sure your script (in the case of filmmakers) is read by people who have absolutely no investment in you, whether as a person or a filmmaker, but whose opinions you respect for one reason or another. Maybe they are filmmakers as well, and you’ve seen their work, which you respect; or maybe it’s a film critic or journalist you respect; maybe it’s a professor; maybe it’s an author; or maybe it’s someone who isn’t involved in the arts at all, but is intelligent, informed, and opinionated. Or it could even be someone you don’t like, but can’t help but respect. I feel like we probably all know somebody like that.

Or you could be lucky enough to be selected for any one of the existing screenwriters labs, offered by the likes of Sundance and the IFP. 

And I know some who have paid for professional feedback – there are people and companies that offer that service. Tanya Steele, who contributes to this site is one person I can immediately think of. And I believe the Slamdance Film Festival also has a consulting service.

But the point is, expand your circle of influence. In other words, get a nice, wide variety of opinions on your work, and then collect all that feedback and do something with it – especially if you find that there are common reactions/suggestions that are shared by several members of your COI.

Of course, you could be so confident in your abilities that you don’t feel like you need to to get constructive feedback from anyone. And if you’re that person, good luck to you! I guess your work will do the talking eventually.

But since I get asked these things often, my suggestion is that you start with simply expanding your COI, and embrace the feedback that they give, even though it stings at times. Your work will be stronger for it. And don’t be afraid to completely discard whatever you have at any given moment, if you start to feel that what you have isn’t working, and start over! 

And yes, I realize that it’s not always easy to get others, especially those outside your circle, to take the time to read your 120-page screenplay for example, if you’re a screenwriter, or your 600 page tome, if you’re an author. It’s a time-consuming task that not every person is up for. But at least make the attempt to inquire. You never know unless you ask, right?

I’m often asked by readers who really only know me from the writing I do here on S&A. And, when I can, I oblige.

So I think you’ll find that there are those who genuinely want to assist, if only because they want to see black artists (filmmakers and films in this specific case) do well; and it really all starts with your initial approach. 

Or enter your work, whatever your craft is, into competitions all over the world, and see how you fare against others; in some of those cases, although often for an extra fee, they’ll give you feedback on your entry. But at the very least, you’ll get some idea of how your creation compares to others around the world.

Again, the overall goal here is to help improve the quality of the work by black filmmakers in circulation.

As I said, filmmaking is a resource drain; so why not make sure that what you have is indeed the best you can give, given how much time, energy, and money (whether yours or someone else’s) that you’ll be investing each time you decide to create something new? That’s really the crux of the matter here. Think about that the next time you begin the process; quite frankly, that should be your goal during every single day of progress that you make, from the writing, to the casting, the directing, the acting, the cinematography, sound design, editing, etc… 

So, once again, how do you know you’re good at what you do? Take me to that moment when you create something and you say to yourself, “damn, this is good!” or “I think this is it!” How do you know when you’re there? Is it internal, as in, you just know? Or is it based on the feedback you get from others? Or is it a combination of things?

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