Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Stiff Dose of Reality

It's every film maker's worst nightmare.  The lights go up, an uncomfortable silence envelopes the theater.  A moderator walks to the front, microphone in hand.  "Let's talk about the film you've just seen" he says, innocently enough, and unleashes from the audience a chain reaction of hate-filled vitriol, all aimed squarely at your baby - your carefully crafted, defenseless little speck of a film.

And yet, the cruel reality of any artist is that any art they manage to make, be it a painting, sculpture, novel, or film, no longer belongs to them once they share it with the world.  It is now out of their hands.  It has a life of its own. Whatever ideas they were actually trying to represent have no relevance to the effects that the art actually has on an audience.

And the reactions that it may elicit from an audience are wide, varied, and entirely dependent on a seemingly chaotic range of variables specific to each and every person: do they even like horror movies; does the lead actor remind them of someone they hate; are they hungry, tired, hot, at the time of viewing; did they just get in a fight with their boyfriend; did they once have an idea similar to yours and now hate you for having finished this movie?  Who knows.  Somehow, all these variables get wrapped up into a hazy glob of something called "taste". 

Two people, sitting right next to each other see the same movie - one says, "I thought it was very clever and effective.  It really drew me into the story.  I was engaged throughout and was shocked by the ending - very well done."  The next person says, "I thought it was cliched and boring - totally obvious and had no sense of what it wanted to be.  I hated it."

It's easy for an artist to want to go around defending their work - "yeah, but that's not what I intended...", "I originally wanted to do that, but we ran out of time...", "no, I wasn't trying to rip that off - what, no I've never even seen that film!"  For me, with Enter the Dark, the most obvious bit of criticism is that it's a rip off of Paranormal Activity.  The cruel reality is that I had my idea before PA was ever released and had to watch in horror as accolades were showered upon a film that closely matched many of my ideas.  I knew that most people would assume that my short was just a reaction to PA, but I didn't care - I did it anyway, knowing that at least some folks would be able to discern the difference.
And so, I bring to you, actual unfiltered reactions to my defenseless baby, Enter the Dark after a screening at Toronto's WILDsound Film Festival this past April.  These are some responses from your average film fans - not particularly horror fans mind you.  And some of the reactions are quite brutal.  If I had watched this soon after I finished the project, I might have been quite crushed, but having some distance of almost two years, and many successes later, I can take a (somewhat) more objective viewpoint.  Still, it does sting a bit.  Thank goodness however, for the ever astute viewer that shows up around 4:30 in the video - finally someone who was actually paying attention!!  Oh thank you, thank you Mr. Dreadlocked Dude - you actually make film making worth doing!

Well, what's a film maker supposed to do, given these types of reactions by seemingly equally intelligent and reasonable folks.  How do you judge if your ideas are coming across to an audience?  How can you tell if you are an effective film maker?

Well for me, before I finished Enter the Dark, I was very careful to show it to a group of people whose opinions I trust.  These were friends and family from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Some who love horror films, some who never watch them.  Some who are also film makers, and some who have never created anything close to "art" in their lifetime.  I asked them to be brutally honest.  I asked specific questions pertaining to what was working and what wasn't.  I asked them specifically about the ending of my film, as I was unsure whether I was giving enough information to explain it.

After the screening, we talked about the film in general, but I also handed out response sheets so I could look over their reactions at a later time and sift through the data.  What I realized is that you can never take one single piece of criticism at face value.  Never ever take a note from one individual and assume that it is correct.  Each and every person has such a unique take on things, that to try to please everyone is a fool's game.  You will end up with a film that has no relation to the personal insights you originally intended.  You must ignore any criticism that isn't corroborated by multiple people's responses.

If one person says they don't understand the ending of your film, then fine, take a note - but do nothing.  If THE MAJORITY of people get and like your ending, you are golden - don't mess with it!  However, if you continually get the feedback that folks are having issues with your ending YOU MUST FIX IT!

Always keep in mind that you will never get 100% of your audience to like what you are doing - nor should you even want that.  Any idea worth doing is going to piss some people off - if you're not offending someone, then you're not trying hard enough!