“I just want to make something risky,” he said, “something honest.”
It was week 4,852 of the pandemic. A vaccine was still a near, but not-yet-concrete possibility, and he had the itch.
There was a plan: a quarantine film. A small, passionate crew, self-isolating together, making something powerful. Meaningful.
“It will be about relationship abuse.”
My gut clenched a bit, but I listened. We talked it out. He asked me some questions about my own experiences. Other women, too. Wanted to get it right.
“Go for it!” I beamed, secretly jealous of the opportunity. I also had the itch.
A script came together quickly (I got cast as the shitty sister-in-law, but whatever). It was pretty decent. Risky, but that was the point.
After principal wrapped, there was a joy in his voice I hadn’t heard in far too long. That made me happy. We all deserved to be happy.
Later, in another too-rare joyful moment with this friend (thanks, Moderna), the details of the project took a turn that tainted our relationship in a big way. I felt like he immersed himself in a complex topic he didn’t fully understand for all the wrong reasons. I felt used … and still so proud ... and disillusioned … and strangely closer to him … and overwhelmingly sad.
Of course, I wrote about it. To make sense of it, to try to heal, and to beg that we stop doing this to each other as creatives. Ultimately, I concluded it would be hypocritical to use his complex story that I don’t fully understand for my own purposes.
I’m taking my own advice.
It’s OK to have flawed and contradictory feelings.
- Fran Cabrera-Feo (Writer: "Gentefied" / HBO)
We all want to believe we are making art for the right reasons. That we are righting wrongs. That we are speaking hope into the universe. When we have something inside of us that has been repressed, be it by society or circumstance, that creative itch can be especially seductive.
The artist’s response to pain is to counteract it with beauty—an urge to affirm life even as we are drowning.
Sometimes we make magic.
Sometimes we get it wrong.
When you create a piece of art, you carry a two-handed burden: emotional honesty and situational honesty. On one side, you have a profound desire to make something cathartic and relatable. On the other, you have a deep fascination with the subject matter—an impulse to pick it apart and study its guts. These feelings are often entangled. It’s complicated, it’s confusing, and it’s easy to mistake your own infatuation for truth.
It’s a lot like falling in love; it’s easy to convince yourself it’s perfect, even when it’s not right.
Context matters. I was supportive of my friend’s film initially because the context at the outset was different than what it became by the end. Had he been more conscious and forthcoming about how his choices changed the the film over time, he could have adjusted, he could have avoided a lot of expense, and he could have avoided the humiliation of me turbo-punching him in the soft parts. Had I been more forthcoming with myself when writing this article, I would have realized that I was mad at him for more than the movie. That I was meeting hurt with hurt.
Like it or not, art is subjective. Even in the most ideal circumstances, you can’t fully control the meaning because you can’t control the context it was made in, and you can’t control the context in which the audience receives it. We see it all the time: projects have been torpedoed by the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, or simply because the director was finally outed as an aggro jerkwad, and we’re all fed up with aggro jerkwads.
It’s no longer enough to say “I meant to make a meaningful film about X” when your actions say otherwise. It’s a lie. And audiences won’t separate the creator from their work. You are your work.
That’s why “Why this story? Why you? Why now?” is such a crucial way to review your idea before it even begins. If you aren’t crystal clear about why you are invested in this venture and, more importantly, why others should be invested, you should really do some soul searching about what is drawing you to it in the first place. Because a blanket “making something important” ain’t it.
This is doubly true of projects that center the lived experiences of real people. In these cases, you have a hefty responsibility not to exploit the individuals who trust you with their stories. Documentarians often undergo Human Subjects Research training, but fiction writers don’t. Their priority is to entertain, to twist the truth in order to reach peak dramatic impact.
They don’t always consider the consequences for the people they are representing.
They should. We all should.
Representation is important, behind and in front of the camera—more people telling their own stories means fewer chances to mess it up. Transparency is also key—you can’t hope to make something honest if you don’t approach it honestly. Then, hire people who will tell you the truth, gosh darn it.
You need all three. To put your big, beautiful idea in front of a great team, warts and all, and trust them to tell you it’s maybe not so great? That is naked vulnerability. That is real risk.
But, say it’s too late for that. Say you’ve already made the million-dollar mistake. What now?
EAT CROW: Art ages. Society evolves. Widely beloved shows from ten years ago will make you cringe today. Art is temporal: it is a reflection of who you are in a single moment, as influenced by the world around you. If you no longer like something you made, forgive yourself (but not too fast) and own up to it. Apologize if you need to. You won’t win back everyone, but most rational people will understand you don’t exist in a vacuum and give you some grace.
DON’T GET DEFENSIVE: Have you ever been hurt by someone who then apologized by saying “I’m sorry you feel that way, but—“? If you are truly interested in becoming a better artist and human being, listen to the feedback you’re given. Even if your ego wants to reject it, even if you think you were misinterpreted (remember: context). If it’s something you are hearing from more than one person, chances are, it’s not them, it’s you.
DO BETTER NEXT TIME: The cool thing about art is that you get to keep making it. Ryan Murphy, celebrated humanitarian and creator of "Pose" and "Glee," wrote some really gnarly things involving LGBTQ+ characters earlier in his career. Now the guy can’t miss. His perspective changed over time, and his work reflects that. Embrace your evolution as an artist by making stronger choices as you learn and grow.
HIRE GOOD PEOPLE: Find trusted, diverse friends and ask them for focused feedback on the things you are ignorant about. This only works if you are 100% transparent about the situation. People can’t address the things they don’t know about and secrets will only hurt you in the long run. It takes a great deal of humility, and it can get ugly, but it’s better to hear that stuff from people you like than to read it on IndieWire later.
KNOW WHEN TO STEP BACK: Why this story? Why you? Why now? These should be simple questions to answer. If you have to search for it, or if you have to justify it, this might not be your story to tell. I don’t subscribe to the notion that only certain writers should write certain stories or characters, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can write anything. (Watch Ratatouille. You’ll get it.)
Sometimes growth feels like flying. Sometimes it feels like falling face-first off the Chrysler Building.
The point is to keep growing.
*Feature photo by Olga Rai (Adobe)