My Dad always used to make me PB&J - two whole sandwiches with a big glass of apple juice - every Sunday. In retrospect, I think this utter spoiling might have had something to do with the fact that this was the one day he would see me a week, and that he must have known even that wouldn't last as long as either of us wanted; nevertheless, I have to attribute the peanut-butter and jelly spoils to my Dad's underrated and over-reported folk-philosophy which he bestowed upon all of his kids in their own ways. He was a stoic in one sense, finding meditation in the works and labors of a life in construction and carpentry, while finding meaning in education and the cultivation of wisdom - at least, so he spoke. He insisted to all of his kids that you don't go to college to get a job, you go to get an education. Despite whatever the modest ups and significant downs in my relationship with him, this lesson rang in my ears. Still does.
Grief is a marathon, not a sprint. Off-Season producer Leah McGurk and I wandered through New York a few nights ago before her bus back to Toronto and mused on this, on how we had gotten through a year of grief. While I'll leave her story to her, and the rest of the team's to their own, suffice to say that by pure coincidence a significant portion of the team lost loved ones over the course of development and production of the film, and in many ways I think (and hope) we all found a little solace in this story, which in many ways lives and breathes in the realm of grief, denial, and loss. My Dad passed away a couple days after I got home from a year abroad in London, this past June. Almost a year ago now. I hadn't seen him in over nine months, and had spoken maybe half a dozen times with him while away. I had written an early draft of the feature length version of the film before I got back. When I returned to work after the funeral, my boss and a key patron of the project, Howard Woolf, asked me if I still wanted to make the film. I said emphatically yes, although I had very little intention or expectation that I could. The notion of making a film about the search for the proverbial missing parent felt wrong in the wake of this tragedy - don't speak ill of the dead and that. As I kept writing though, I started to realize that the film wasn't about my Dad but rather for him. For him to hopefully understand what the emotional state of life was like for my Mom and I in his absence, but more just to show him what I could do, what I could build, what this education he had so earnestly encouraged me to pursue was worth. I realized that it had always been an engine, that no film was going to repair or undo what I wanted to be different between us, but that by committing full-heartedly to this pursuit, I could exalt the best of what he had taught me, my favorite parts of our relationship. This, to my surprise, did not decay with his passing, but amplified.
My father was a builder, and a very good one, though he didn't start that way. A favorite story of his family and friends recalls my uncle, taking him on an early job, smashing up my Dad's first attempt at a counter-top molding, uttering one single phrase, "Do it again, and this time, do it right." This too rang in my ears as I was writing. I would read back in my empty apartment, delete whole drafts without back-ups. Do it again. Do it right. I don't know if this is reflected in the quality of the script or the film. I do know that the doing of it was the important part, for me. For him too, I know that meaning was found in the doing. Be it in the building of some lawn game or the fixing of a deck or the waterproofing of a basement, a life was found in the doing of things. When I got my first real job, working as a carpenter, he sent me a box full of old reliable tools. He had moved long since then, and I would see him on holidays, talk monthly. For a brief moment in our lives, we had something to talk about. The little petty ways a 2-inch drywall screw can save or ruin a frame. The infinite virtues of channel locks. The peace in a cup of lemonade and bag of pretzels in the truck home. It's a hack metaphor, but all creative endeavors resemble building in process. Careful planning, rigorous attention to detail, and the exhausting and satisfying process of hard labor. While I'm proud of the film, while I can't wait for you to see it, I have to again be clear here: the virtue is not in the final product. The product and its quality are incidental to the process, the doing. I learned this from my Dad. The film couldn't have been written without him.
As the team for Off-Season came together in preproduction, I had had half a year to deal with my grief, to learn to live with it as a new permanent addition to my life. Some things in the script needed explaining - I developed a little common reading, rife with poetry, prose, and little anecdotes from my own life to try to bring a crew with diverse backgrounds into a common language. We had actors from Brooklyn, a DP and producer from London, a production designer from LA via Taiwan, and half a dozen other localities. One thing that never needed explaining was the main character's emotional state. We all understood what it was to lose someone, either through empathy, subjective experience, or both. Despite the frankly massive levels of collective anxiety associated with trying to shoot a film of this scale in the budget we had, I believe we all understood, underneath it all, the sanctity of that emotional space. We had all been to funerals, some of us a few that year. We were all longing to find people who were lost, like Ellie does. I'll love the team of this film forever for that, for their silent and earnest and abiding empathy.
After my father passed away, different members of the team also helped me through that process, to literally survive, and I'd be remiss without mentioning them. DoP Adam Barnett took me for a long walk around London. He bought me a book and told me I'd be alright. It meant the world. PA and consultant Danielle Bryant cooked me dinner and let me crash on her couch. Ernest Anemone (playing John) bought me a burrito and let me rant about death and the human condition. These little acts of compassion were not their job on the film, nor were they social obligation. These brilliant creative people all also happened to be some of the most emotionally generous people I've met. I think the two tend to go hand in hand. Without them, the film certainly wouldn't be here. I'm not sure if I would be either. I wish that was hyperbole, but grief takes a heavy toll. I'll leave those stories for another day, but suffice it to say that I'm okay and it's very much because I took advantage of the resources available. If you, dear reader, struggle or have ever struggled with not wanting to exist, you're not alone. I've linked the national and state resources below. It's scary to talk about this publicly, but it's important.
As I said to Leah the other night, wandering around central park, reflecting on our year, "people always die at the worst times." I know it's a bit of a dark joke, but in the marathon of grief, a little irony can go a long way. We had our first test screening of Off-Season at Tufts University last week. The crowd's response to the film couldn't have been more positive, engaged, or pleasing to the team. There was high praise for the performances, the cinematography, and the story, and this is all for an early preview of a still unfinished film. After this, and despite the great reactions, I was visibly upset, and Leah and lead actress Delia Cunningham asked me why. I couldn't articulate it well at the time, but I think I was simply disappointed he didn't get to see the film - not because it wasn't what I wanted it to be, but because I think he would have loved it. He might not have gotten it, it might have been hard for him to watch, but I have to hope that he would have been thrilled that I had taken his advice, that I had gotten an education, that I had built something. Even if it went nowhere. Even if it touched on things that were hard for us. Having spent a week accepting that he won't get to see it, and listened to the responses, I couldn't be more pleased. I heard from a few who connected with it personally, creatively, and thematically - that the film actually meant something to them in their own struggle with loss. Showing the film to my family a couple days ago yielded similarly touching results.
Filmmaking, like grief, is a marathon, not a sprint. The pleasure is in taking each step - despite the pain therein. As I learned from my father, may he rest in peace, one can find peace in that work. If the results are helpful to others, all the better. I hope that they are, I hope this film is. Either way, I can't express how much supporting this process has meant to me, and I hope to the team as well. I write this now, close to halfway through the marathon of our fundraising, to express to everyone who has supported the film just how much it means.
And for those of you running your own marathons, creatively, logistically, emotionally, or otherwise, I wish you way more than luck.