I’m not good at endings.
In my defense: endings are hard. When you’re writing a story in any medium, your ending needs to say everything that you want to say in the most concise way possible; which, given that you’ve spent 90-plus minutes / 300-plus pages / five-plus hours of gameplay saying what you want to say in a decidedly not-concise way, is going to be very difficult for you to do. How do you drill down the core of your story and lay out its thesis statement in an emotionally resolving way?
See? It’s hard.
This year has been fraught with all sorts of endings, which has made it a somewhat difficult year for me in many ways. To be sure, I’ve been very fortunate throughout the year and haven’t had much struggle, and for that I am very grateful. But I’ve had to deal emotionally with the accumulating endings to a whole era of my life, and that’s been getting more and more difficult with each passing day.
Today is one of the biggest endings I’ve had to contend with. Today, after ten months of working on it, “The Fisher Queen” is done. “The Fisher Queen” is my thesis project, a short film I wrote that my classmates made and I had the grand opportunity to direct. It is the last film I will make as a student of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts, and it is – in all likelihood – the last film I will ever direct.
And I feel… a lot of things. But two big ones.
Firstly, I feel profoundly relieved. This film – as much as I love the characters, the story, and even the real people involved in its making – has often felt like a tremendous weight bearing down on my shoulders. It was always a story that was very personal to me for reasons I’m still not ready to talk about openly. Beyond that, though, was a perhaps greater concern that I placed upon the film. From the beginning, I said I wanted to make this film because I wanted to create a portrait of clinical depression that I felt was not the Hollywood sexy kind of depression, but a very real and true kind. There were always fears associated with that: the fear that I was arrogant to assume I was even qualified to tell such a story; the fear that the film would turn into a pretentious mess that didn’t function dramatically; the fear that I would inadvertently create a film that is horribly disrespectful to those who suffer from depression.
These fears have now dissipated. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded yet – the court of public opinion is still out on that, until December 12th at least – but I know that this film, for me, satisfies the impulses that drove me to write this film and pursue it as my thesis project.
Underneath the relief is a deep sense of gratitude. The second reason I chose this project is very specific and, in retrospect, impulsive in a way that feels very out of character. Going into the thesis cycle, I had one major goal overall: to build strong creative relationships of the sort that I had built with Corey during the production of his F3 project, “The Wild Salmon.” That partnership is still perhaps the strongest I’ve ever had with somebody else, and I’m very excited to finish his thesis project, “Miles Away,” in the coming days. But after working with him on his F3, I knew that such a partnership is something I wanted more of, with more people. So as much as I would have loved to work with the people involved with my own F3 project again (because I was incredibly proud of the work we did on “Needle Fingers”), I challenged myself to find brand new creative partners and to build these new relationships.
In our writing class last spring, Paula, who was still uncertain whether she was going to direct a film as her thesis project or produce a classmate’s film, pitched a film that is, I firmly believe, the best unproduced story I’ve read at the film school. I took to it immediately and remember arguing so passionately for it in that class that I may have scared off the instructor. I was naturally disappointed then, when Paula opted not to direct that film but instead to produce Ryan’s directing project, “Short List” (a wonderful project that I had a great time working on, and a project more than worthy of Paula’s efforts as her thesis project – seriously, the scale and production value of that party scene is unmatched in our class’ films). Knowing that her pitch was tonally and thematically relevant to “The Fisher Queen,” which I was not committed to at the time, I decided – very suddenly – to ask her to shoot the film.
That was a lot of decision making that happened seemingly without my conscious effort, but it was a moment of providence, because working with Paula was exactly the kind of creative partnership I was looking for in the thesis cycle. She had a way of knowing exactly what this film needed at any given time, and we rarely had to even say a word to be on the same page. The more that I talked about this movie with Paula, whether it was about the script in writing class or about visual style in our ASC workshops, the more I secretly conspired to make her essentially co-director. There was only one decision I made about this movie without first consulting Paula – and that was the decision to ask her to shoot it.
This is why I am so thankful today. Because I have been blessed to work with a group of people who all put as much into this project as Paula did – people who made this movie their own. I have been steadfastly avoiding saying “my film” when referring to “The Fisher Queen,” because it is, well and truly, a film that my classmates made. Paula made it and made it look gorgeous. Sarah made it and made it flow and breathe and gave it a heartbeat. Corey made it and gave it a beautiful sound. Claire made it and made it happen at all by keeping our heads where they needed to be and never sacrificing an important moment to save time. Anthony made it and made it orders of magnitude better by allowing us to use the raw audio of the live performances thanks to his diligent sound mixing on set. Max made it and made it awash with light and shadows playing off each other in the best ways.
My classmates made this film, and I just directed it. And I am so thankful that all of these people believed in this story and loved these characters enough to pour so much of themselves into it at a time when so many of us were hanging on by a thread, worn down by an impossibly exhausting and draining summer.
But of course, I cannot simply praise the efforts of my classmates, great though they were. Because the beating heart of this film has always been the two women at its center, both the fictional and the very real. To them, I’m going to speak directly, because no matter how many ways I’ve tried to write this, I can’t express it any other way.
Callie. I knew three minutes into your audition that you were the right person to play Elaine; there wasn’t a doubt in my mind. You got my silly Arthurian legend references! It was a sign, clearly. It was incredibly humbling to watch you disappear into Elaine for three days. I watched you take her through such grueling moments, and started to feel her pain so acutely that I’m pretty sure I asked if you were okay way too many times. In the editing room, when a long minute-and-a-half shot of your performance would start to play, we’d never watch more than a few seconds because the emotion was too intense and too heartbreaking. That you were so willing and able to spend three days surrounded by friends and colleagues, but to rarely speak to them and isolate yourself in order to bring Elaine to life speaks volumes about your love for the character. So thank you. Thank you for giving her a voice. Thank you for loving Elaine as much, if not more than, I do.
Emily. Fate kept us from working together in 2014, and spared you a gruesome on-screen demise at the hands of Christian Meola, but I never stopped wanting to work with you. I was thrilled that you were so invested in this script. When you read for Lex, it was the first time I felt that I was actually talking to a character I had written. More than that, it was one of the first times I actually realized how important Lex was. She was always an important component of the script, but your understanding of her and everything you brought to her made her completely essential, and led me to the realization that this was a movie not about a single title character, but about two people. You were so transformative and completely Lex that I cannot imagine this movie existing without you. I’ve always thought of this movie as having this punk-rock spirit, and you almost single-handedly gave it that, both through the voice you gave Lex and through your presence on set. Thank you for giving Lex a voice. Thank you for loving Lex as much, if not more than, I do.
There are so many more people that I should thank, but I’ve gone on for some 1,600 words and can hear the proverbial Oscar orchestra starting to swell. I haven’t even won anything and I’m rambling like a slightly-tipsy A-lister who has the right friends (see, there’s my healthy cynicism)!
I have learned so much from this experience. So much that I cannot begin to impart all of it. This is the first time I have ever understood the charge of directing, ever felt like I’ve come close to actually doing the job of directing a film. I was only ever pretending at it before; this time, I think I took a pretty good swing at it.
So we come now to the end. As I said at the beginning: I’m bad at these. But you know what?
As much as “The Fisher Queen” changed from its initial pitch to its final on-screen form, one thing has never changed: the ending. It has always ended with a lone, pained musician, singing to an empty room. Because the ending says everything that you want your story to say, and if “The Fisher Queen” is saying anything? It’s saying that art is both burden and relief.
Film school, which rapidly approaches its end, has been a burden. The hardest thing I’ve ever done, without question. But it has also been the very best thing I have ever done. The most rewarding. The most fulfilling. The happiest I have ever been.
I do not know what comes next for me. I do not know whether I’m going to be in New York or Los Angeles come January. I do not know what sort of jobs I’ll be doing to pay rent. I wish I did. I wish I could tell you I’ve got a plan, and that I had the confidence to say that in twenty years you’ll see my name in the end credits of your new favorite movie. But I don’t have a plan, and I don’t have that confidence.
But I do have this. I have “The Fisher Queen.” I have this experience. I have these collaborators, these friends.
I have so much. Thank you. For all of it.