I call myself a creative and thus go through the self-imposed daily mantra “What do I create and how do I not suck at it?” I wanted advice on how to handle that, so I talked to someone who’s been there before and has successful not-sucked for some time. Below is the transcript of my interview with Steve Stockman – writer, producer, and filmmaker whose no-mincing words attitude shows us how to create art and get out of our own way. Steve talks to me about how to get real with people in Hollywood, “lay your guts on the table,” and how to do something seemingly impossible – like, say, make a Hollywood feature film with moviestars in it.
To his point of laying your guts on the table, Steve has a book out called How To Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck, which one of my friends, Steven Pressfield has raved about calling it “Two years of film school in 248 pages.”
Read our interview to learn about the intimidation of a new project, how to hold yourself accountable, and why our real life stories that don’t end happily make for good movies.
INTERVIEW WITH STEVE
I: Talk to us about your current career and how you got into it.
S: I am a writer, producer, and director of a couple hundred commercials. I’ve directed a feature film. I’ve directed web series. I’ve directed television pilots. That’s pretty much what I do.
When I was a kid I wanted to go into radio or into movies and so I broke out and did both. I picked my college based on how big the radio station was, and then I worked in radio for ten years. When I eventually got fired from radio I floated around and then started a production company to make TV commercials for radio station clients. Needless to say its no longer the huge business it once was. Then I moved to Los Angeles and eventually wrote, produced and directed a feature film called Two Weeks. It now runs every five minutes on MGMHD because apparently they don’t have any other movies… Many other projects came and went, but in the end all that experience lead me to write a book called How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck.
I: So you have skills and experience in different fields. How do you navigate the opportunities you can potentially explore?
S: I would say that all things come back to my marketing background. I just grew up being a marketing geek. I didn’t study it, but I’m oriented to marketing, always have been. Mentally, I’ve always been a content creator and thus always been a marketer, so the content creation opportunities that I seek out are those that I see have a market.
For Example, Two Weeks is a very personal film, based on a true story, about my mother who was dying at the time; but once I wrote the script, and it came time to put the movie together and get it financed, I switched brains and just turned on the marketing hat. Before I took it out and tried to get it financed I had to prove to myself on paper that there was a market for it, that there was a shot at getting it done. It’s massively easier to sell something that you already know people want, and this is true even with purely creative content. I’ve written a lot of movie scripts in an attempt to get a movie going, but when I wrote Two Weeks, it was night and day difference in terms of attracting people to the project. Writing a feature film script is a craft and you have to learn it, and I think that one was good because it was my fifth script and not my second.
Then part two of my equation was that Two Weeks was more revealing of myself, so it was closer to real art. Ripping your guts out and putting them on the table for other people to look at is what I think defines art, taking that personal risk and saying, “Here’s me.” In my experience it’s hard to do that because the minute you put your steaming guts on the table, some people say, “Oh, look at those guts. I don’t like those guts.”
I: Did you have fear of failure?
S: I was pretty sure it would work. Once I had written it and received feedback from readers that I trusted, I was confident. At some point though, I had a group of actors read it out loud, and that is scary. Out loud is where a script lives, that’s where it is headed, and hearing the words that are in your head spoken by actual actors… terrifying. Terrifying for three reasons: First, it’s a room full of ten or fifteen people whom, regardless of how well you know them, are now the first people to judge your work. Second, you’re going to see how they react because they can’t hide it. And third, you know some of it isn’t going to work, which is why you’re doing the reading in the first place. You just have to sit there and go, “OK, just show me what sucks and get it over with quickly!”
To make a movie that actually gets released is like threading a needle. It’s impossible, and the impossibility of it is a little daunting if you spend too much time thinking about it. You have to walk that line, like you do in any high-risk project, between psyching yourself out and ignoring the giant pitfalls. I got very lucky in two respects. One is that I had a good friend who had a lot of money. And two, I had a great script.
I: So are people honest with you about projects in Hollywood?
S: Yes and no. Truth is different by country and region, as you know. In China, they never tell you the truth if it’s “No”. Never, ever. They say a hundred and fifty things that sound like “the check is in the mail.” All of which mean No, but all of which sound like Yes to Americans. Here, in New York, they go “No, fuck you.” In Los Angeles they’ll say, “This is great. Let me think about it.” People in LA get confused. They often think you can lie and not do what you say you’re going to do; but you can’t. It’s a codified kind of speech and agreement system that involves you having some credibility before people will assume you will perform well again. There are some things that you can skate on and be a little dodgy about because everyone knows you have to be; but then there are some things you can’t do that with at all.
If you pitch your movie to me and say “Miss so-and-so” is attached, that’s always not true. What it means is that Ms. so-and-so said, “Yes, I’ll do your movie if I’m not in another movie, if it’s at a good time, if I still want to later on, if I like the rest of the people you bring to the party.” So if Ms. so-and-so says, “Yes, I’m attached,” everyone knows they may or may not be there when you start shooting. But everybody also knows that they might actually be there, and if it sounds like a good idea to you then, you might also attach yourself if you’re Mr. so and so. Then Ms. so-and-so and Mr. so-and-so are attached and it sounds even better! Gradually you spiral up to truth, and even then if Ms. so-and-so drops out, the other so-and-so might still be there. Everybody knew that everybody I said was going to be there may or may not be, but the fact that those people said they would do it gave me the credibility to make the movie. I hope that made sense.
However, regardless of so-and-so and the DP, you have to commit. One has to commit to a project like Two Weeks, and the way that I manage myself on scary things is to commit as publicly as I can. I don’t take out billboards, but if I’m really doing it and I tell my friends I’m doing it, I have to do it. I’ve failed before but I’ve never not tried to do those things as best as I could.
Honestly, your trials and tribulations are just stories to other people. They like hearing those stories and they’re rooting for you. For the most part, to win, and they like hearing even when you don’t win because it’s part of the story. So what I try to do more now, is share when I am in trouble because it’s interesting to people. I’m one of those people that tends to put their head down and just does it. So I’ve tried to stop and say, “Here’s my problem.” Surprisingly, people will say, “Let me help you with that.”
I could have been more open about what was going on when it was really personally scary with Two Weeks, but I always thought that people would see me as weak if I opened up. But really what they’re seeing is “Wow. This man is taking a risk. That’s cool. I wish I had the guts to do that.” Failure has entertainment value. Not all stories end happily and in the middle there’s supposed to be challenge and distress.
I: Do you approach these lessons in your book, or is it more instructive and how-to execute with video?
S: Both. There are 48 hours of video uploaded to youtube every minute. That’s insane. And that’s just part of the video that’s going on. So, if you’re a director, it’s like being a doctor at a cocktail party, except instead of saying, “Hey can you look at this boil on my neck?” You say, “I’ve got a video I’d like to show you.” Since I’ve been teaching video for years, I found that I was delivering my curriculum when anybody asked, “How can I make this better?” At some point I was asked twice in one week and that night I surfed online for video books and looked up all the publications that were written, and most of them said the same thing: “Here’s what 1080p means” “Here’s how to plug your camcorder into your computer” “Here’s the editing program you should buy.” But I wasn’t interested in any of that. I’m interested in what are you going to shoot and why and what its going to communicate to people. Why is the public going to watch it?
The thing about equipment and technical aspects is that in the hands of someone who knows how to use it, the equipment can be a tool to tell stories and make entertaining videos. In the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to tell stories or make entertaining videos, the equipment is a distraction. No one cares, and so the big problem is that as a society, all of us from birth have grown up watching video, so we understand it. We know when the scary monster is going to jump out and we can come in, in the middle of a TV show, and understand what’s going on. We get video language but we don’t speak it. And because we don’t speak it, we are inept when we make videos because we are not conscious about the fact that it is a language required to innovate.
Steve’s bio: Steve Stockman is a writer/director/producer at Custom Productions, Inc. in Los Angeles who’s done a feature film, music videos, TV, a Web Series and over 200 commercials. Steve’s first book, How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck, is now available from Workman publishing. It’s based on a course he taught to kids for 12 years, but adults will understand it too. It’s not technical—it doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting HD or cellphone. It’s about how to shoot video that’s entertaining, effective—and that actually gets watched.