After 23 days of non-stop editing before the Sundance deadline, Patrick reflects on the process, knowing that our documentary only became what it now is because of one thing: we went all in.
When it comes to filmmaking, I’ve never really felt like I was particularly creative… or talented for that matter.
Growing up, my father always used to say “can’t isn’t in your dictionary” and he encouraged us to always believe we could do anything we dreamed of. While filmmaking was never something that just came to me, dreaming big certainly was.
But those dreams always came at the price of going “all in.”
Here’s a quick story for you…
At 16, when I was looking to save up for my first car, I took at a job at the local YMCA. During the summer break I had several weeks where I would clock 100+ hours. I can remember looking at my time sheet at the end of the week and always feeling proud at how much I had done.
It was never particularly hard work, nor was it anything I felt particularly connected to, but I was always proud of the accomplishment of simply doing something I may not have thought I was capable of.
One shift in particular: I can remember starting at the front desk at 9am on a Saturday morning, rotating to work with the kids camp around 4PM, switching to an overnight shift in maintenance at 10PM, and then picking up another another handful of hours with the kids camp in the morning…
What reached just over 30 hours straight ended up getting me in trouble with several departments (I believe that may have been illegal…) but it was just the start in opening my eyes to what was possible when you pushed yourself.
When I was old enough to drive, my dad gifted me with a business he had started and thought would be great for me to run with. It involved selling newspaper subscriptions for a commission on each sale. We had a crew of 5-6 kids that would rotate as our door-to-door crew, and a minivan to transport everybody from city to city.
Here I was at 17-18 years old, running a team of kids selling newspapers, having to handle payroll, and acting as their guardian when we traveled hours away from home. All of this, and I’d never really read a newspaper myself, had any interest in running a business, or been particularly fond of kids.
It was the challenge to see what we could do, to see what was possible, and the ideology that had been long engrained in me…
Can’t isn’t in your dictionary.
At our peak, we sold 152 subscriptions on one magical, yet long, Saturday in the middle of summer.
At a $20 a pop, it meant the kids would get a paycheck of $500-600 cash for a few days work. I can remember having to step in and stop one of the 7-year-olds, Stephane, when he went to somebody’s door to sell a paper and ended up throwing down a $1,000 cash offering to buy the car listed for sale in their front yard.
When we became the top selling team in our region and got to meet the head of the newspaper in person, he was shocked at just how young I was. Much like my current feelings that I’m not particularly talented in the art of filmmaking, at that time I certainly didn’t feel any special gifts in selling newspapers…
We were just willing to work harder, go longer, and do what nobody else would do…
Mapping out the flow of the #standwithme story board in the edit bay.
Fast forward to today…
Now, just days after we submitted our first film to Sundance, I feel the exact same way as I did running the newspaper squad. When we meet people at workshops or conferences there seems to be this idea that our team might have some uncanny knack for shooting pretty images that float from the CF card straight onto the timeline to make a powerful sequence.
The truth, unfortunately, is that it’s far from easy and while we often have magic, it is always born out of perspiration and passion.
Just a few weeks ago, a group of us converged on a newly finished edit bay in our Portland studio and we started cutting. We’d shot for 6 months and found ourselves really starting post production with just 23 days left to the Sundance deadline.
There are many different forms in which this movie could have taken, but the one we weren’t ready to accept was the movie that was somehow lacking because we ran out of time or couldn’t try everything we wanted to.
And so we dove in — we gave all of ourselves to the project to ensure we wouldn’t be hitting that submit button with anything left on the line.
We went “all in” — and that is what made #standwithme what it is.
Going all in — giving all of yourself to a project — and expecting more of yourself than what you feel your capable of… this is what it takes to make something special.
But what does it really mean to go “all in?” Where does it hurt the most, and when does it feel the most rewarding? What’s necessary and what’s unnecessary?
Developing tunnel vision…
On our best days, we’d hit 18-20 hours in the edit, head home for a measly few hours of sleep, and then get right back at it. We’d have dinner delivered to the edit and often eat while still cutting. I can’t speak for the whole team, but I’d wake up in the middle of the night immediately thinking of new transitions for the film or how to handle an issue we were having.
Throughout the editing process, Patrick eats at one consistent pace: scarf.
We were totally immersed in the film. This deep relationship we were developing with the piece allowed us to live inside of it and see things in a much clearer way.
When you make your own films, whether they’re documentaries, narratives, weddings, or otherwise, there really are so many choices to make every step of the way. The goal is always to put story first and make sure every decision fits the story we are trying to tell.
Patrick laying out a plan for the day on his trusty whiteboard.
That all sounds great — but it’s a rather ambiguous task, and when you’re the one offering direction to team members, it’s getting to that level of total immersion in the film that lets you feel your way through the story so that you CAN put it first.
In those last 23 days we had a couple of serious challenges we had to work through as a team. One of our main characters — Maurice Middleberg, the director of an organization called Free The Slaves, is a really busy guy and we couldn’t get him scheduled for an interview until the 18th, which was just a handful of days before the deadline…
By being so immersed in the project, we knew exactly what we needed to talk to him about.
That didn’t however solve the question of what he’d say. We’d read books, we did as much research as we could so that we understood the answers, but that didn’t necessarily tell us how he would answer in the moment. And without that, we wouldn’t know if it would fit the film, and if it did, we had no way of knowing how much would fit and if we needed new transitions or more b-roll.
The solution? Hire an actor and make a fake interview to temporarily keep in the edit.
We arranged for a phone interview with the real Maurice, asked our key questions over the phone, had a transcript made from the recording of the call, gave those lines to an actor, and filmed an interview with an actor performing the answers we heard on the phone. From that point on, the actor would be known as “Fake Maurice” — and straight into the edit he went.
Grant and Marshall review the #standwithme storyboard.
Fake Maurice helped us tell pacing, gave us insight into how to drive the upcoming interview, but more than that — when we showed the film to people we didn’t have to explain all the pieces that we missing, we could let the film stand on it’s own.
Of course, we did eventually get the interview with the the real Maurice Middleberg, but we were better people for having known Fake Maurice.
Boldly go where no one’s gone before…
Now, to have an actor read lines from a phone call to mock up an interview isn’t a solution that fits many problems. It’s the idea that we were willing to do whatever it took to make this the best it could be. We were willing to find solutions and push past the obstacles and go where most people wouldn’t.
While tunnel vision helps create a deeper awareness of a piece, it also has the danger of lacking perspective. Ever work all day on an edit, take a break for the night, only to find that when you come back the next day it feels completely different than what you remembered?
All of a sudden, you are seeing things you hadn’t before and you have different directions you want to try. Had we had more than 23 days it would have been an amazing exercise to take a few days off and then come back to see how it felt.
This is where focus groups are so valuable. We brought in a group of 40 people to a screening in our studio, to offer us a fresh prospective, but also to test just how well different things are working.
On the topic of focus groups, I’ll say this:
It is incredibly scary to lock yourself in a box for weeks on end, completely immersed in a project with “tunnel vision,” only to emerge in front of 30 strangers and ask them to be brutally honest about it.
Stillmotion invites a focus group into the studio for some constructive criticism.
Somewhere deep in the back of your mind, you always hope that as the credits start to roll the room will erupt in cheering, with each person having nothing to criticize about such a beautiful piece. Of course, the reality of the exercise is always far from that, but exposing yourself to those comments and reactions before the film is done can be such a game changer.
The story of creating Fake Maurice wasn’t about mocking up interviews. Likewise, sharing our experience with focus groups is about much more than just that.
Check your ego at the door… or just leave it at home… all the time.
If you want to give all of yourself to a project, you need to be willing to check your ego at the door.
Focus groups are certainly an exercise in humility, and for first timers it can be hard to sit in the back and hear so much criticism. Whether the feedback is from a focus group, team member, or yourself — it is imperative to always put the story first, even when someone is stomping on your heart.
In our second focus group, after watching the film somebody raised their hand and asked if we planned to cover women’s reproductive rights. It caught us all off guard and to many felt like it was out of left field. You wonder how they missed the point, clearly the film isn’t about reproductive rights — why would we cover such a topic in our movie about child slavery?
Putting story first means resisting the urge to defend yourself, to jump into a big explanation of why you didn’t choose that direction or why the choices you did make were better.
Rather than defend yourself, take every critique as an opportunity to know where you can do better. If we are getting suggestions like that, clearly we didn’t make the thesis of our film strong enough.
If somebody seems confused about something that was in fact answered in your film, don’t tell them exactly who said what, and when, instead realize that you may not have made the point clear enough, or said it enough.
A young member of the #standwithme focus group observes footage of child slavery in Nepal.
Every point of feedback is an opportunity to gain insight and strengthen your story…
The challenge is letting go of the urge to defend, of wanting to protect one’s pride, and instead accepting everything that comes your way with gratitude.
Losing the ego means more than just accepting feedback — it also means being a team player day in and day out.
We have a very strong team for #standwithme, but so much of that strength is in our collective willingness to do whatever is needed to help the project.
Sometimes that means long hours or hearing things you don’t want to hear, but it also means being willing to do jobs or tasks that you might not normally. Part of going all in means that no job can be beneath you.
Whether it’s creating a transcript from a long and dry interview, running for coffee at 2am, or doing a simple string out when you’re a fabulously talented editor that can do much more — it all matters.
On one of our last shoots leading up to the deadline, Ray and I headed to Fairfax for a pickup interview and a pile of b-roll. We fly out at 6am that day, shot, then flew back at 10pm with the plan of driving straight to the studio to get the footage in to the edit.
Had this been the beginning of the film, that shoot in Fairfax would have been 2 days with a crew of 4, but leading up to the deadline it meant that Ray and I had to shoulder a larger load. For him, that meant interviewing the founder of Fair Trade, Paul Rice, all by himself.
Granted it was some short pickups we needed, but he still had to light, roll audio, run camera, and direct. To add to all of that, this is a guy who has won social entrepreneur of the year and been on the cover of many magazines — you don’t want to mess this up.
Ray could have easily said it was too much, back down, and we would have moved on without it.
In order to get the footage back and into the edit, it needed to be converted, sync’d, and strung out. It would have been easy to left that up to Ryland, our second editor on this project, but that would have put us at 3-4am at best to have the footage ready to go. Instead, on no sleep, after a 16 hour day, with 300 emails waiting in your inbox, you download the footage, convert while you drive to the airport, and cut on the flight back.
Patrick and Quenna immersed in the #standwithme edit.
I’m not particularly fond of transcoding or stringing out a large pile of footage, but sometimes that’s what it means to be a team player. We all had that same attitude when it came to this film. If there was one thing that made me the proudest about our team, it would probably be just how fluid and willing each and every person was to help out however they could, any time day or night.
Make personal sacrifices… even when it hurts.
Needless to say, when you edit 18 hours a day, there isn’t much room for anything else. Of course, that’s the point, but it also makes for a large personal sacrifice.
To sacrifice a couple of days is one thing, but for weeks on end… it becomes something much bigger.
The key to giving all of yourself to a project if to know that this personal sacrifice is needed, be ready for it, and make sure you’re willing to put everything on the line for the piece.
In the two weeks leading up to the deadline, Joyce had to bear the brunt of the traveling.
In just over 10 days she flew to Florida for a CBS shoot (the Lawrence Taylor documentary), went from there to DC to get archival slavery footage from Free The Slaves, flew back to Portland to deliver the footage, went straight to Fairfax for one of the final shoots, headed back to NY for another LT shoot, headed back to DC to an interview with real Maurice, and then flew into LA for Lisa Kristine’s TedX talk (one of the final things we’d shoot before the deadline).
That’s more travel than many would do in a year, all in the span of two weeks. Interestingly, when I asked Joyce what the toughest part was leading up to the deadline, it wasn’t the travel.
She said she could handle the travel, but the hardest part was being away from the project — those shoots when she was back on the LT project and could have been here, helping us make this film better.
That’s not a comment on not enjoying the CBS film or not doing all she could for it, it’s a statement about just how committed every team member was and how hard it was to pull yourself away, even when what you were doing was still to help out the team.
Grant’s family lives in Ohio, so when he is here in Portland working on the film, he is far out of reach of his two boys and wife. During the course of our race to Sundance, his son Eli had his first day of school.
In his words — that’s one of those things that can only happen once in a lifetime, it’s a defining moment, and there is no make-up date. You can celebrate a birthday three days late, but it doesn’t mean the same thing. All of this while waking up at 6am and heading to Denny’s to manage his real estate business before the team showed up, so by 9am he could have everything out of the way and his focus solely on the film.
Grant can often be found sleeping for 20-minute intervals in a variety of locations.
And for me, sacrifice during this project meant having to make a very tough and deeply personal decision.
Days before the edit started, I got a call that my mom had been taken to the hospital with a serious medical condition. I flew from Portland to Toronto that day to be with her and my family. As a few more days went by, with her still in the hospital, the edit began and I felt compelled to get back and help the team. Leaving that day for the airport, I knew there was a chance I may never see her again, but I also knew that this film is bigger than me, her, or any personal comfort we could offer each other by being together.
It certainly feels insensitive just to write this, but at the same time I can’t help but feel how fortunate we are to have the option of seeing our kids’ first day of school, flying across the country to be with family, and having so much abundance…
This film is about people who don’t have that choice, about children who don’t have the option to go to school because they are forced to work all day, and of family who have no option to comfort each other, regardless of how dire things might be, because they’ve been separated long ago.
And there it is — the reason we will put it all on the line — because we believe this film truly matters and can really save lives.
As a studio, we believe that well told stories can change the world. We believe that films can educate, empower, and inspire people to be an active part in shaping the world around them. #standwithme is a film that explores modern day slavery through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl who decided to take a stand.
It is a film that attempts to explain how it is that million of children today could be enslaved making fireworks, cocoa, weaving rugs, carrying slate, fishing and much more.
More than explain — it attempts to give you the power to know how we are all connected in this and what you can do.
It is this purpose that makes everything we are giving up seem like such a small price to pay for what this could do.
All of this to say; we aren’t lucky, we aren’t magic, and it certainly isn’t easy.
What we do have is:
- A willingness to go all in.
- Say goodbye to our ego.
- Expect more from ourselves than even we think we can deliver.
- Put the story first (no matter what).
Ask yourself how much you could possibly do if you laid everything on the line for a project. It’s common we deliver about expectations, but what about when you push far past that to the limits of whats possible for both you and your team. Know that passion and perspiration is a must if you want to take your project to the next level. Talent is just a bonus. We only have so many days on the earth to share with each other – do something worth losing yourself for.
Sleep-deprived and silly, the Stillmotion crew has a giggle sesh before screening one of the last edits of the film. Maddie investigates the ice cream.
Thanks to all of you, too.
I also want to take a moment to offer a heartfelt thanks to everybody who submitted shots making their own #standwithme. We’ve used dozens at the end of the film and I am completely overcome with emotion every time I see people from around the world standing together sharing their #standwithme, supporting us, and supporting a stand against something as atrocious as child slavery.
For us, #standwithme is a story that we are willing to go all in for.
We’d love to hear from you — what story would you be willing to go all in for?
Has a project ever completely taken over your life?