Author Archive

A New Documentary: The Story of the Stuff – Coming April 2015

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

An image from Newtown, CT.

Today, on the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting, we are announcing Self-Reliant Film’s upcoming web documentary, which will be released online this spring.

Entitled The Story of the Stuff, the documentary — using video, audio, images and text — tracks what happens to more than half a million letters, 65,000 teddy bears, and hundreds of thousands of other packages, donations, and condolence items sent to Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. 

As I worked with residents of Newtown to tell this story, I was vigilant to resist exploiting this horrific tragedy by digging into the violence of that day. This is not a story about violence; it is a story about what we do after violence. 

The story has a deeply personal connection. 

On April 16, 2007, I was at work, managing a Blacksburg, Virginia, art house cinema when a shooter murdered 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. It is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. 

In the days, weeks, months, and years that followed April 16th (I later went on to teach filmmaking at Virginia Tech from 2008-2012), I witnessed firsthand the growing phenomenon in global culture that we’ve seen everywhere from Oklahoma City to Columbine, from Aurora to the Boston Marathon bombing: After a tragedy is covered in graphic detail by the news media, there comes a massive public outpouring of sympathy, most often in the form of physical expressions of grief—for lack of a better term, the “stuff.”

Votive candles, flowers, teddy bears, Hallmark cards—these come en masse. Giant posterboards, personalized gifts, hand-written letters, and painstakingly handmade artworks—the range and scope of materials is extraordinary. 

But the tidal wave of “stuff” poses an added burden for the recipient community and the questions are countless: Where does all the stuff go? Who should handle it? Should any of it be kept forever? Where and for what purpose?

Ever since my experience at Virginia Tech, these questions have fascinated me — as a filmmaker, as a practicing librarian, and as one who has grieved—up close and at a distance—for those lost.

The Story of the Stuff, then, is an investigation into our American culture of consumption and remembrance. The way we represent, remember, and respond to such tragedies has much to teach us about ourselves, our memories, and our grief. 

I hope you’ll join us in exploring these questions when we release The Story of the Stuff on April 16, 2015—the eighth anniversary of that fateful day that changed my life forever and inspired this new work. 

— Ashley Maynor

UPDATE (4.3.15): The Story of the Stuff facebook page has launched. “Liking” that page will keep you abreast on the most up-to-date announcements about the documentary’s launch.

Advice to Young Filmmakers

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

I recently received a request for some advice from a young filmmaker in Kansas City who’s conducting informal interviews with people in the industry. As I wrote my reply, I thought I’d publicly share her questions and my answers:

-What advice would you give to young filmmakers, fresh out of school, who are looking to start in the industry?

Don’t wait for permission—from funders, programmers, production companies, etc.—to make your movie. All the tools you need are within your reach. Great stories have been told with Fisher Price cameras. You can make a moving film with nothing more than clear film leader. It’s not about the camera. Or the actors. Or the budget.

Make something people want to watch. Try to tell uncommon stories. Don’t imitate other filmmakers—try to make something the world needs, a story only you can and must tell. As Rainer Maria Rilke told a young writer who looked to him for advice, if you don’t wake up in the middle of the night yearning to make your work, then you should probably consider another vocation.

-Is it difficult to build contacts/connections when you are just starting out?

If you have lots of money or went to a fancy film school, it might not be. But generally speaking, building a network requires a lot of work, a lot of sweat, and a lot of rejection. Ten years into the business, I feel I’m just now getting a foothold on a network of my own. It’s very possible, but roll up your sleeves.

-How do you begin to make connections?

Start in your own backyard—meet people with common geography, interests, ideas…Go to as many film festivals as you can afford. Meet other filmmakers who are doing work you respect and admire. Better yet, meet other artists—musicians, writers, visual artists, and so on. They can help to inspire you and, sometimes, help you with your film in a more direct way.

Be good, gracious, and kind to the people who find their way into your life. One of the best connections that has helped me to date was with my college study abroad advisor. I sent him postcards from all the countries I visited in college. Years later, he was repping a musician whose work I wanted to license for my first documentary.

Get a producer—they are excellent network builders. Consider following really great blogs. Try starting here or here or here. Read. A lot. The internet provides opportunities for learning and developing a network well beyond where you might live or be able to travel.

-How important/vital do you think these connections are in the industry?

Filmmaking is a collaborative venture, so by the very nature of the art and business, you need other people. Particularly, filmmakers rely on programmers to lend a stamp of legitimacy to their work and to get it in front of bigger audiences than one can get without them.  I believe the most influential network a filmmaker can have is among programmers and critics.

-What are some common mistakes you see young/new filmmakers making?

Derivative work. Work without soul. Pretty but vapid pictures. Unabashedly and unnecessarily violent films. Films that only make us more asleep, less in touch with the world and people and concerns around us.

Doing it for the money. If you’re in it for the money, there are much better, faster, and more reliable ways of getting rich. So don’t do it for the money. In fact, you’re probably going to need a day job.

I make films to wake people up, to change lives—that is where I set the bar for whether or not a film should be made.

-What are some of the most difficult challenges you face when working on a film?

Every film is a tiny miracle. It is harder to do than you will probably ever be able to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. We all have our war stories for every film we make. I think it’s actually better to not know what those challenges will be or just how damn hard it’s going to be, otherwise you might not do it. So, this is one area of life where naiveté is actually a blessing. Hang onto it for as long as you can.

I once heard Jonathan Demme say, it doesn’t matter if you’re 19 or 91, with each film you’re a first-time filmmaker. So, with each film, let yourself be a newborn.

Should I Get An MFA? : Pros & Cons from Someone Who Did

Monday, April 29th, 2013

I recently got a request from a filmmaker for advice on whether or not he should go back to school to get a master’s degree. As someone who did get an MFA and has both teaching and non-teaching work experience (that is, life making a living as a full-time maker) under my belt, I  thought I’d reply to the blog-o-sphere for others who are pondering the same decision:

I think the first question to ask yourself is this: why do you want a degree? If you just want to learn more about filmmaking or film studies, you could do yourself much better with a library card, a Netflix subscription, some free classes on iTunesU, and slaving away as a PA on a few productions. Better yet, take the amount you’d spend on tuition and spend that time in NYC and LA working–as a PA or in an agency mailroom–cultivating your network…or buy your own DSLR and make mistakes for free in your own proverbial backyard.

To my mind, there are two strong justifications to pursue a higher degree in Film:

1) It’s already paid for (i.e. you’ve gotten a fellowship or assistantship) and you can learn with the wonderful safety net that graduate school provides. (I do *not* recommend anyone go into debt more than the cost of an old, used car–no matter what the reputation of the school–for a film degree.)

2) It allows you to teach, which is a respectable way to support yourself as an artist, especially as someone who wants to make independent films, experimental work, or films with less-than-great commercial prospects.

If it’s the latter, then you must also consider that there are beaucoups of people out there who are unemployed holders of MFAs in film. Film teaching jobs are few and far between–just take a look at the listings on the Chronicle of Higher Education or the University Film and Video Association website to get sense of the scarcity. But, if you’re willing to live somewhere fairly off the grid (i.e. not in a big or even medium size city, relatively isolated from the industry and other filmmakers), then there are more positions that may have less competition. This can be a workable situation for the self-reliant or DIY type, especially if you make sure to travel several times a year to keep your inspiration levels up and industry ties strong. But, it can also be, well, depressing and frustrating. My requirements are that a job is too far off the grid if there’s not a post-production or equipment rental house within a 3-hour radius. For each person, that threshold is different.

More importantly, I think the best teachers are those who also make–people who are really doing it and have a lot to offer their students in terms of work experience, connections to your industry/field, and a real-world perspective. Anything less poses an ethical dilemma for me: if you can’t provide the above, why should students pay tuition to learn from you?

Another consideration for any would-be teacher is that teaching is more than a clock-in/clock-out commitment. While teaching, I more often than not put in above and beyond the 40 hours/week in terms of committee meetings, university and community service, advising, endless emails, etc., on top of my course teaching load. It’s work that follows you home, unlike, say, a kind of survival job where you can punch your time card. On the other hand, summers are free for making your own work and the flexible schedule is tough to beat!

Teaching at a research-oriented institution is the ideal job, as it carries the smallest teaching load and encourages (expects, actually!) a high degree of research productivity, which for you translates into filmmaking. And some of your best students may actually be people you want to have collaborate with you on your work. These full-time positions, however, are also the rarest and most competitive. It will be expected that you have made one or more films with a certain level of success (e.g. strong festival run, distribution, critical praise, etc.), have a positive reputation in the industry (e.g. demonstrated by awards, grants, professional organizations, or other acknowledgement), and previous teaching experience. Of course, there are all kinds of schools: liberal arts colleges, typically with a strong emphasis on teaching and student relationships; community colleges, who usually emphasis both teaching and community service; for-profit schools and film programs (which I don’t have any first-hand experience with); and part-time teaching positions.

Adjuncting is fairly common for new MFAs, but the pay is rarely great and usually does not carry any fringe benefits, such as health care. That said, I know many a freelance film producer and writer/director who use adjunct classes and part-time lecturing as a way to have some sort of stable income while spending the bulk of their time as makers.

It’s also worth saying that there are folks who do teach without an MFA. Guest lectureships, artist visits, workshops both at universities and community organizations often pay successful filmmakers to share their knowledge in short or long-term capacities. I’ve had a few of these gigs and they are usually a lot of fun but were never enough to sustain me in and of themselves. After a certain level of success, though, it’s not unheard of for a filmmaker to become a professor without an MFA at all…but we all can imagine those odds.

So, to sum up:

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Good Idea: 

  • Stable income without selling your soul.
  • Great schedule.
  • Intellectual and creative freedom for the kind of work you make without as much commercial pressure as full-time filmmaking or freelancing.
  • Helping shape the future of the industry.

 Why Getting an MFA/Teaching is a Not-So-Good Idea: 

  • Highly competitive, especially for desirable cities/schools.
  • Lots of responsibilities beyond teaching for full-time positions.
  • You need to be a maker before you become a teacher. And teaching will take time away from making.

If after all this, you want to take the back-to-school plunge, then I recommend you check out these previous posts from the blog. They will give you a good start on the advice we’d give about looking for a film program:

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part I 

So You Wanna Go to Film School Part II

A Creative Producing Storm

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Our blog has been silent over the past few months, but don’t let that fool you–we’ve been busier than ever! In this short span, Paul and I began work as managing producers for a new film production company dedicated to producing feature films in the American South (more on that soon); one of Paul’s scripts was selected for IFP’s No Borders Co-Production Market; and I spent a week at the Sundance Institute‘s Creative Producing Lab and Summit as the 2012-13 Sheila C. Johnson Creative Producing Fellow. Oh, and we’ve also been filming a feature film!

More than anything, it’s been a time of growth and change as creative producers, so I wanted to share a few gems I heard at the Lab & Summit on this under-appreciated role :

“You have to the calming center [for the production] …but you’re also the punching bag for everyone.” –Lynette Howell, on the paradox of a creative producer’s role.

“Producing is the credit that everyone wants and that no one values.” –Anne Carey, on the constant struggle to define and protect producing credits.

“We’re like cockroaches. When the nuclear blast hits and we have to eat plaster, we eat plaster.” –Christine Vachon, on how she and her company, Killer Films, have stayed in the business for so long.

P.S. For even more of a love song to creative producers, check out this video, called “The Unsung Hero of Indie Filmmaking” made by the Institute.

DIY Catering Part II: 4 Easy Ways to Go Green(er)

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

A few posts ago, I shared the first part of this series of tips on DIY Film Catering. (To read about 5 Essential Catering Tools under $50, go here.) This time, I focus on the seemingly impossible task of making a film with a small environmental footprint–there always seem to be compromises for the sake of convenience, time, or the other kind of green (money). While it’s not always easiest or cheapest to take the eco-option, I have found four simple ways to keep our film catering a little bit greener without taking up too much time or cash:

1. Use Recycled Paper Plates + Compostable or Metal Flatwear: When faced with on-the-go shooting days, rustic or outdoor locations, recycled compostable plates and compostable corn-based flatware make clean-up easy and more affordable than you might think. Even Sam’s carries 100% recycled, chlorine-free plates these days, so this “green” step can be nearly as cheap and convenient as using their plastic and styrofoam counterparts.

When we find ourselves in a semi-equipped location (i.e. an indoor location, especially one with a kitchen), I’ll bring metal flatware, which cast and crew place in a plastic bin at the end of meals and I throw into a dishwasher that night for the next day. Caterer style stainless steel flatware sets can be had for cheap — and, in the long run, are much more cost-effective than the environmentally-friendly disposable kind: They will last a lifetime!

Finally, if disposable coffee cups are a must for your set, opt for something like Chinet’s Comfort Cups or Dixie’s Vanity Fair Cups which paper-based and have recyclable plastic lids. Again, these are found at most major retailers and are less evil than their styrofoam versions.

 

2. Require BYO-Bottles &  Provide A Refill Station: Our film sets are BYO-water bottle for all crew. I also keep a few extra stainless steel bottles on hand for talent, PAs, and the inevitable forgotten bottles. Having designated, labeled bottles helps to cut down on waste–no more unidentified, half-drunk plastic bottles lying around! And I’ve found that many crew will keep their bottles attached to their belt loops with a carabiner. This constant access equals more hydration and less fatigue on set.

I recommend stainless steel over plastic since (a) you can avoid the whole BPA issue, (b) they are less likely to develop odors/bacteria, and (c) they can go through the dishwasher. You could even have some specially printed for your crew to keep as mementos from the shoot! (If you really want to go all out, you can get hot/cold insulated ones that will keep water cold and coffee hot and that don’t “sweat” with condensation.)

Secondly, part of our BYOB system includes a refillable 2-gallon Brita Filter water dispenser to provide fresh, tasty water on set, using any available tap, without contributing at all to the world’s bottled water dilemma.

 

3. Use Aluminum Food Prep Containers: Any Costco or Sam’s can set you up with the industrial strength, catering style disposable aluminum pans. Because they are so heavy duty, you can actually use them several times (but don’t put them in the dishwasher–they will turn brown!). Unlike glass casseroles, they won’t break and unlike plastic they won’t retain odor from other foods. They are great for transporting and storing cold food or you can also use them to heat hot food, either in the oven or using a sterno-catering setup on set. Best of all, you can recycle them at the end!

 

4. Keep Trash & Recycling Bins on Set: It can be a pain, at times, to provide both trash AND recycling bins but I just can’t stand the waste on film sets. Even with our BYO-Bottle system, caffeine can create lots of waste on set. So, I make an effort to buy all sodas in aluminum (since it can be recycled many more times than plastic and without the toxicity) and recycle those at the end of each shoot day. If this seems like too much of a hassle, try using something like the Flings pop-up recycle bin and trash can–these are reusable, much more portable than traditional bins, and they might just make it easy enough for you and your crew to go greener!

 

At Self-Reliant Film, we believe that the way you make something shapes what that thing is. So, while recycling on set or using biodegradable products might seem like a low priority, especially when working with budgets where every cent counts, we think even these small decisions can shape the work we’re making. We want the stories in our films to be responsible (i.e. to tell uncommon stories with integrity and respect for the region where we make and set our work) and we believe a big part of that responsibility begins with how we treat the set, our crew, and the environment that makes it all possible in the first place.

If you have other easy ways to keep film sets more eco-conscious, we’d love to hear about it. Please share in the comments!