I didn’t know what a web series was before I made one. Desiree Akhavan and I were trying to figure out what to do with a couple of films we wrote and directed for Ira Sachs’ directing class at NYU Grad Film. We kind of hated the whole film festival racket, mostly because our shorts didn’t get into any film festivals. Then “webisodes” were thrown around. I remember web series being kind of embarrassing. You certainly didn’t go around saying you were making a web series with pride. The reactions ranged from boredom to dismissal to outright pity.
But we made “The Slope” anyway. We learned not to be precious. We learned to free ourselves up, talk about what we wanted to talk about. We learned to be honest, painfully so, even if it meant we were putting the worst parts of ourselves online for strangers to judge.
“The Slope led to Desiree making “Appropriate Behavior” and me making “F To 7TH.” With “F To 7TH,” I needed a project that was solely mine. I didn’t want to share scripts with anyone. I didn’t want any feedback. Although NYU was invaluable, inspiring, pivotal, there was constant feedback. Let me be clear – an artist needs to learn how to give and receive feedback. It’s a necessary skill. But you also have to know when you’ve had enough. I needed a reminder of who I was without anyone else’s influence.
Communicating your voice is a painful, scary process because the best work always comes from a very uncomfortable place. You have to tell a secret you haven’t told anyone. You have to be willing to make yourself look like the fool you are in the hopes that other fools see it and realize it’s okay to be a fool.
Before I launched season two of my web series, I panicked. With this season, I was exploring more darkness, the parts of me that felt disliked, unpopular, flawed. I was worried I would offend people. I was afraid my mother would finally watch it, and she’d never speak to me again. Especially since the entire season was based on conversations I’ve had with my mother about my sexuality. What if I did give men a try? What would that look like?
What got me to move forward was simply the realization that it was more important for me to be heard than to allow fear to keep me quiet. I’ve been creating stuff from a very early age. I’ve also been through years of therapy. I have learned that there are two voices inside of you. The quiet, timid one that tells you that you deserve to be heard and the loud, powerful one that tells you you’re a joke. If you can figure out who is who, and use both of them, that’s when you find out who you are. The relief is that no one else hears the voices in your head but you, so you are inherently unique.
While web series are sort of like dating, making a feature is a long-term relationship. Like dating and relationships, I hope to do both throughout my life, although maybe not at the same time.
Nothing that I experienced beforehand – not the seven short films or the 28 episodes or the many failed relationships – could have prepared me for my feature experience. The only thing I can say is that it broke me. Physically, emotionally, psychologically – I was in pieces. And I’m thankful for it. It rewired my brain, taught me I wasn’t who I thought I was. I was more vulnerable. More open. I had an ego. I was frail and powerful and imperfect. I made many, many mistakes. I learned, and eventually accepted, that I will fail. A lot. And for every 20 failures, I will have one success. And that success will keep me going for the next 20 failures.
During the process of making a feature, it’s not about finding your voice, it’s about holding onto it. As a director, you have to be able to withstand everyone asking you the same question over and over. What is your vision? Which translates to: Who are you? Whether it’s the story or the look or the cut or a line you record in ADR, it’s all pointing to that: Who are you? That’s a question that will drive you insane after awhile because sometimes, you just don’t know.
That’s what’s so transformative about making a feature. Not only do you get to experience how it feels to accept not knowing, you start to understand that there is more to do tomorrow. And tomorrow, you’ll know.