Just Try Not to Die

Just Try Not to Die

It was the earthquake that did it. Unleashed the panic attack that had been building for five days—the panic attack I'd been too sick or too exhausted or, for a while, slightly too dead to have. The panic attack that returned my brain to full screenwriter paranoia.

“But how would I get out?” I gasped at the unflappable nurse Kevin, as we stared at each other across the sixth-floor Cardiac ICU room.

“We could airlift you if there was a real quake.”

“But the top of the building is two floors up, how would I get there?”

“The elevator,” Kevin shrugged.

The elevator? Kevin, who are you dealing with here, a small child? A small dumb child who doesn't understand rising stakes?

“If that was a foreshock, the next one could be big enough to knock out the elevators or the power, then what?” I wheezed through a collapsed lung.

“We'd carry you up the stairs,” he replied, but he shifted uncomfortably. I was getting to him. The second-act complications around Kevin were starting to close in.

“My torso is being held together by wires and thread! I'm not allowed to get out of bed without help. If you carried me up two flights of stairs, I'd break in half!”

“You're having palpitations again,” Kevin said, pointing to one of the five monitors studying my every breath. “You should try to calm down.”

He was right, but I'd won. There was no way out. In a major earthquake, the story of my life would end in tragedy. It was over for me, this week had proved that. I knew what kind of story I was in, damn it. Don't try to tell me otherwise, Kevin.

I took raspy breaths, fiercely aware of the gently swaying building. It was one in the morning, five days after surprise open heart surgery. My lung was collapsed, I was covered in ink and iodine, stank like a fish, couldn't walk half a block, and had recently been sawed in half.

I had half a movie to finish shooting. How was I going to do it?

“Just try not to die” is my standard advice for anyone helming a first feature. I nearly did, and I wouldn't recommend it.

Even if you aren't facing the literal potential death of dangerous surgery, there will be times during your first feature where the Grim Specter approaches. Money running out. Actors disappearing. Missing the shot. The fires of creation inside your fertile spirit flicker down to nothing, and you are too paralyzed with overwhelming exhaustion to poke at the embers. It will feel, in my experience, a lot like dying.

I'd recommend not dying.

Enthusiasm and drive are cyclical. We may all be taught in film school, and by questionable professionals online, to “write every day,” to “never take your eyes off the finish line,” and to “stop eating all those Cheetos, or at least wipe your hands off before you start typing again,” but the truth is the drive necessary to finish shooting a movie is not a permanent resource. You have to regularly feed it hope to keep it alive.

But what happens when hope starts to run out?

What happens when you're lying in a hospital bed, with a movie to finish, but currently some obstacles like “don't puke up your grape juice” and “convince your lung to start working” taking every ounce of your energy and hope?

But the truth is, it didn't have to be that dire of a situation.

I could've run out of hope the day of the goats. Shooting on location at a county fair, it quickly became apparent that although they'd given us permission to film there, they wanted us dead or, at least, gone. Our 10-hour day got truncated to six. The only place to shoot was next to a livestock pavilion where there was a goat beauty competition going on. They borrowed our gaffer's tape measure, because goat measurements are no joke.

Goats, it turns out, are as loud as they are, apparently, beautiful. Ear-splittingly loud. Can't-hear-the-dialogue loud. There was nowhere else to shoot. There was no outside force to help. The clock was ticking.

Try not to die.

On every project, on every film, there's going to be those moments. In independent film, you are frantically laying down track as the train rolls forward. Miss a section of track, wander off the course into a ravine, and the train derails. Without a studio and all its beautiful bureaucracy to come to your rescue, you may be lost forever; if a movie dies in the woods, or by a goat pavilion, or in a hospital bed, with no one from inner-circle Hollywood around, does anyone hear it?

Moviemaking is an act of faith—in your team, but also in yourself.

Three days after the earthquake, I was participating in the world's most depressing parade. In the Cardiac ICU, they encourage patients to get up and walk as soon and as much as they can. So, off you go around the hallways, at the speed of a dead seagull, clutching a walker, trailing an IV pole, a nurse pushing a wheelchair behind you for when you collapse. Throw in a calliope and you've got a circus from Hell.

At the end of the long hallway, I spotted another woman about my age on her own journey, struggling forward against an invisible tide.

It felt pointless, this lap around the ward. A month ago I had been on set, happily managing chaos twelve hours a day, sleeping three or four a night. How could I ever get back there from here? How could I even get out of here?

We staggered down the hallway toward each other, panting, dragging our IV's with one hand and hanging onto the walker for dear life in the other. It took about 14 hours as hospitals tell time, but as I approached this other survivor, a curiously silly thought bubbled up in my brain. The first silly thought I'd had since I'd heard the words “open heart surgery.” A thought that old, fit, inexhaustible set me might have had.

As our parades collided, I reached up and offered her a high five.

She looked up. My grey-faced twin grinned and weakly tapped my hand back as we passed.

Maybe the great secret at the heart of what makes you an artist is the ability to self-generate incentive. To restart a spring inside yourself that's died from drought. Maybe the hope that drives us forward in our work comes from the process we go through, over and over, of pulling a little light, even a little, silly light, out of the darkness.

Five months later, I was back at work. The interim involved a lot of sweating and grunting, a few collapses, the small victories of stitches removed or making it to the end of the block. I was stonily focused on getting my physical strength back to survive set days. But it turned out something else was working itself out, maybe in the long afternoon naps I now needed to recover from a half mile.

The first time I stepped back on set, I found myself in a completely different story than I started. While I was still a first-time director, the overwhelming fears that I would disappoint my team or fail at my task were nothing but moths beating against a window. A new confidence had put down its roots, entwining around my healing body. We ended up short a page that day, and I calmly sat at midnight with my AD, plotting how to get it back over the next week.

No biggie. I’d been cut in half. Somehow I was more whole.

When the sternum knits itself up, the fusion makes the bone stronger than it was before. The body heals, and scar tissue is tough. When you survive a moment that you could die, a little seed of mental endurance can also plant itself in the recesses of your brain. Navigate the trauma, keep taking one step on the saddest parade after another, feed it a little hope, from time to time, and you can get to the high five. You can even get back to your dreams.

Just try not to die. The rest will come.

*Feature Photo: Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis is a filmmaker. Her debut feature, What Lies West, is available on Amazon, Apple+, and anywhere else a corporation lays claim. She gives away free pie on twitter at @baddestmamajama.
More posts by Jessica Ellis.
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