I have a great idea for a film.
Sure you do, I would usually say to myself. And, adjusting for inflation, if I had a dollar for every time I’d heard that tired sentence from a non-pro, I’d be financing my own pictures on the earned interest.
Now, before I come off sounding like an arrogant SOB, allow me this qualifier: I totally understand why just about every breathing consumer of popular culture possesses the notion that his or her idea would make for great film or TV. We’re all visual. It’s unconscious. We daydream. We see or read something that sounds like a movie, and the imagining of the making of a film is far less daunting for most than, say, writing a book.
Sometimes I’ll politely listen with half an ear. Others I’ll merely offer the advice my old man gave me after hearing one story too many from his movie-obsessed son. “Write it down,” he said to me. “Then maybe someone’ll read it.”
Sometimes it’s a family member with the magic idea. A niece, a second cousin, or in a recent case, my own darned sister, Carrie. She’d recently retired from her job in politics and had found herself with the inclination to make a documentary.
“I have this idea for a film I want to make,” Carrie announced to me over the phone.
“Okay,” I said, sinking into my seat. I was about to listen with both ears as opposed to my receiver being set on whatever. Why? Well, because she’s my damn sister and she knows which buttons to push that can hurt me.
Carrie’s idea began to unfold. It wasn’t completely cogent. It was more a series of questions for which she was seeking answers. I engaged her, asked her my own questions, hoping hers would congeal into a single, provocative query around which to wrap her premise. Something that might spark an interest once it landed on someone’s ear. Not just from me, but potential investors because the hell if she had bank enough to turn her provocative question into a feature-length documentary.
And damned if she didn’t pull it off.
Carrie’s idea for a film was not just good, but something great. If executed well it would be a documentary I would actually pay to see. She asked if I’d consult with her through the process and of course I agreed. Not just because she’s my sister. But because I so wanted her film to be as strong as what was still only a very bright concept.
But when I hung up, my experience and instinct informed me like this: an idea is only a single cell with potential. To grow into an actual film is tantamount to climbing one of the world’s highest peaks without the assistance of oxygen. Most wannabe filmmakers become instantly daunted, distracted, and then shrink from the task. I love my sister but didn’t fully expect more than another conversation or two on the subject before it eventually fizzled. Not because I didn’t think she could do it. It was the depth of commitment it required along with a marathon runner’s patience.
I was so very wrong.
She figured she’d need to make a fund-raising trailer and, in no time, she had secured a camera crew. I told her she needed to write her trailer before she’d have something to shoot. So that she did. Draft after draft. She took notes, learned quickly, and delivered. More importantly, as she began to compose the trailer for her film I began to hear a voice. Her voice. As if that provocative question which she wanted to make a film about was coming from a place deeper than her striking intellect.
“You know,” I said to her during one of our conferences, “Some of the most compelling stories ever told are from the first person. Especially documentaries. The compelling difference between your pretending to be a docu-journalist and an actual human being in search of an answer is huge.”
“Make it about me?” she eventually asked.
“Make it your quest,” I encouraged. “You do the interviews. You seek the answers.”
“But me? I don’t know.”
“You’re a mature woman. You’re beautiful. You’re damn articulate. Nobody knows the subject better. Why not you?”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
And so she did. There were follow-up discussions. I didn’t want to push her into doing something altogether out of her wheelhouse. Yet I encouraged her to risk getting a little uncomfortable and see where it might take her.
A month or so passed. She and her camera team had traveled a bit, shot some interviews and some pretty ghastly “b-roll.” When a rough edit of the trailer finally landed in my inbox, it revealed what I’d feared. The product looked as if it had been farmed out to a local TV news crew, was hardly cinematic, and considering the powerful and provocative nature of her quest, well below par. Even more importantly, it lacked Carrie’s passion. As if she’d given up her vision.
“You can’t subcontract out your vision,” I told her.
My sister agreed. She felt as if she was losing her mojo.
I recommended a few documentaries for her to watch. Plus their accompanying trailers. Once again, ideas began to spin. And it became crystal clear to her that if she was going to succeed as a documentarian, she’d have to begin captaining her own production from skin to marrow. With that, she found herself an editing program and, because her trailer was just for attracting investors, began to borrow from the vast images and video available on the internet. At last, she began to have more than a question. My sister had a vision. She began to call me in the mornings, excited to run her docu-making concepts past me, and exactly how she saw and heard her film unspool.
Damn, I thought. She was pulling it off. My sister was going to realize her germ of an idea into an actual reality. I was so proud.
Then came December 2013. My outwardly healthy sister contracted pneumonia as a result of a pulmonary embolism. Then just as it appeared that she was kicking the infection’s ass, a test result revealed that those blood clots were the result of a highly treatable lung cancer.
Only we wouldn’t have a chance to treat it.
On February 6th, I lost my brilliant sister Carrie due to complications from her treatment. And I’m afraid that her vision for a film was extinguished with her shortened life. A documentary that, without my sister’s shear will, might never come to be.
Still, though her lamp may have been switched off, her light remains brighter and more beautiful than ever.
Goodnight dear sister. But not goodbye. You live in not just my heart, but in so very many others.
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