By Li Dong
It was about 10 days before shooting started when it all broke apart.
After months of planning, casting, location scouting, organizing, careful scheduling, writing and budgeting, my delicate straw house of a production for my web series, Model Minority, was getting ramshackled by the unforgiving winds of change.
Within a few days, my lead actress, supporting actress, assistant director and director of photography all walked away from the production for varying reasons (they were offered more lucrative gigs at the last minute or they had sudden scheduling conflicts or–in the case of one former employee–they felt that I was “walking into a disaster” so, I guess we’ll chalk that one up to “creative differences”). If you think of a film project as a living human, these events would be the equivalent to a person having their liver, kidneys, hamstrings and eyeballs start bleeding profusely and unstoppably for no reason whatsoever.
I fell into a dark depression, which, for me, feels the same as falling into a kiddie-pool full of delicious, soul-numbing scotch. I sat alone in my apartment with the lights off for days, agonizing over the future. At least one friend called me for the sole purpose of making sure I was still alive (thanks Jeremy!). Any sane director would have called it quits without feeling the slightest bit of shame. The deck was just too stacked against me. A sane director, however, I am not.
In retrospect, I realize that during those dark hours, I wasn’t daytime-drinking myself into oblivion because I didn’t know what to do next because deep down, I knew exactly what I had to do, which was to go on and do the damn project… so you see, I was actually drinking to deal with the stress of moving forward.
Here is the part where I smoothly and not at all awkwardly segue into talking about the show that I ended up making after all. Model Minority is about a young female Asian lawyer whose world falls apart. She gets dumped and fired on the same day and she has to find out why these terrible things are happening to her. Underneath the plot is the story about a person who must come to terms with the fact that the world is a dark, harsh, unforgiving asshole. So you see, if I truly believed in the message of my story (and I do), I am thus forced to persevere in real life in the face of dark, harsh, unforgiving setbacks. I could see my own character scowling at me, saying, “Look, you made me do all this persevering in this story you created. The least you can do is try a little bit on your end, don’t you think?”
After I sobered up, two wonderful actresses, a highly experienced DoP and a dedicated AD fell from the sky. Was my new cast and crew “better”than my old one? That’s not important (but yes). What’s important is that–cue soft piano music bed–I did something, instead of nothing. This might not seem like such a big deal but consider this: Steven Spielberg said that the most difficult and challenging part of directing a film was “getting out of the car.” In the face of uncertainty, it’s easy to tell the driver to keep going. All the way to the liquor store.
It’s easy to say “I’m not sure I can pull that off right now, I’d rather just not do it and wait for a better time.” It’s easy to do nothing and it takes a tremendous amount of effort to do not nothing, but let me tell you, if you decide to do not nothing you will get something out of it. Guaranteed. I can’t promise that it will be glory or riches (at the moment of me writing this, my first episode has not been released and I have no idea if people are ever going to watch it, let alone actually like it) but I can promise that going through the very painful process of “getting out of the car”is its own reward. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,”Albert Camus concludes that even for a poor fellow whose whole existence is pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down, that “the struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.” When I read that I thought it was ludicrous, but now, I get it.
For the cynics out there, I want to let you know that I’m fully aware of the fact that both Sisyphus’ and my own warm fuzzy feelings may well be a result of blinding cognitive dissonance. Could we simply be deluding ourselves into thinking our lives are actually pretty damn okay even though they’re not? David Foster Wallace wrote about a dog that was tied to a leash which gave him a limited radius of play. The dog, upon realizing its own limitations, would pretend that it wanted to stay within the bounds of the leash and had no interest in the area outside of his reach because, hey, it probably sucked anyways. Is that me? A lowly filmmaker guy who settled to make a possibly shitty project sitting here telling you, the 8Asians audience, “No, but, you see, I’m just happy just doing, mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn…”I’m not going to lie; the thought has crossed my mind.
However, you could easily argue the opposite; that if I chose to not do the project (and if I actually felt good about not doing the project) you could say that that warm feeling would be a result of deluding myself as well. “I’m glad I didn’t do that project.” I would tell myself in this parallel timeline, “it probably would’ve sucked anyways because of XYZ reasons… all of which are completely legitimate reasons.” Of course, I’d have no way of knowing.
In the end, I’d be deluding myself either way into feeling good about whichever decision I made. From where I was sitting in my dark apartment, I could clearly see two different timelines to two different universes… and I was smiling in both. However, ultimately, the universe in which I did something instead of nothing is just ever so slightly a bit better. Don’t you think?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Li Dong is a filmmaker currently living in Montreal, Canada. His new web series, Model Minority, premiered May 27th, 2012. Click here to watch new episodes.