Monday, March 31, 2014

Serenity Now

"I'm more likely to lose my temper on a film set than almost anywhere. Often the level of idiocy is so exalted that it's impossible to comprehend"
-John Malkovitch 

The juxtaposition of the image and quote above should be self-explanatory. For one thing, somewhere, someone thought "Buddha" and, in the next moment, thought "Keanu Reeves."

Regular followers of this blog know that I have been a Zen practitioner for some time, and it would not surprise them to find that I spent the last week doing sesshin, an intensive week of mostly meditation, but also includes face-to-face teaching, dharma talks, liturgy, and other elements of Zen.

One of the "precautions" (as the onus is on you, they aren't referred to as rules) is no electronics, cell phones, internet, or reading. The point is to shift your mind away from your usual concerns.

Eight-to ten hours every day is zazen, or zen meditation. Contrary to popular thinking, meditation - at least as practiced in Zen - is anything but escaping the real world, or drifting off into a peaceful place. It is about getting in touch with your true mind - the eyes are lowered but open during zazen. Everything in practice is pointed toward seeing your "true mind" and then taking that into the real world.

That means that practice means nothing if it does not make sense on the subway, at home, and, in my case, on set or in the production office.

And that is where this post comes in.

I avoided using the title "Zen and the Art of Film Production" or something like that because the term "Zen" is thrown around very loosely in a New Age way that has little to do with Zen practice. Phil Jackson is an excellent basketball coach, and surely has studied some with a teacher, but he is not a Zen master.

There is something in Zen called "right livelihood," which basically deals with making a living in a way that does not violate the Precepts. As film production does not (at least necessarily) include killing (thoughts of killing a director are not included if you don't carry it out), misuse of sex (what grips do in their spare time does not count), abusing intoxicants (difficult to determine that fine line of what defines 'medicinal use after rough day'), lying or stealing (add your own wisecrack here), it technically does not count as violating this.

However, day-to-day application of working in film production is a whole other matter.

On a basic level, it's hard to find time for daily meditation when you are barely getting by on four hour's sleep.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the culture of film. This is something I have thought about in the past, but kept coming to me during sesshin. When you are doing over 50 hours of meditating in a week, you think about a lot of things.

One of the oldest things I remember seeing when I moved from theater to film was the Seven Stages of Film Production. The inclusion in Michelle's blog tells us this still rules strongly today:

Seven Stages of Film Production
  1. Wild Enthusiasm
  2. Total Confusion
  3. Utter Despair
  4. Search for the Guilty
  5. Persecution of the Innocent
  6. Promotion of the Incompetent
  7. Distribution of T-Shirts
Definitely not Zen.

There is no need to explain any of that to anyone who has worked in film. Part of this is true because of the unpredictable nature of film production - weather, actors dropping lines, stunts and effects that need excruciating planning, traffic during company moves, and so many more.

Part, though, is a culture of chaos that production thrives on, as the "stages" above suggest. It often seems that producers or directors are determined to eschew time-honored procedures that work for a different way to do things. I can't say how many times it felt like people involved looked at the way to do things that worked and said, "Let's do this instead!"

I'm not talking here about being creative on screen, but, rather, ignoring procedures that work. Yes, there needs to be flexibility, but some things work, and should only be shunned for good reasons Examples? Go to any one of dozens of posts in this - or most other - film production blog.

Just in recent weeks, I saw a writer/actor sabotage getting a $4.5 million film financed (one he has been trying to get done for four years) because he did not want to transfer the copyright to the production company, which is basic procedure* and done on every film.

There is a Sicilian expression I heard a lot as a kid referring to not "Biting Your Nose to Spite Your Face." **Basically, don't do harm to yourself just to do harm to others you don't like. But, in Rule # 4 (Search for the Guilty) above, I have often seen the the need to "blame" someone outweigh the more important priority - fixing the problem. This need some producers or directors have to assign blame poisons the morale of a crew and, from a practical matter, makes it harder to fix problems, because everyone is now in CYA*** mode and thus look to hide rather than correct problems.

It would be easy for me to go through a litany of stupid things others do or have done, but what concerned me more, as this thought kept coming to me, was my own actions.

I started my last feature film on a good note, waking up each morning offering one of the gathas from my original teacher, Myotai Sensei.

"May this be a day of blessing and being blessed,
Honoring and being honored,
Loving and being loved."

Sounds pretty simple and direct, right? Nice way to start the day.

By Day 2 of the shoot, I found myself publicly (and very unkindly) chastising the director and DP for doing some extra shooting prior to moving to our second location even though they got back on time - I wanted them there early to get a jump on what I thought would be a hard scene.

An hour later, I was sitting wondering why I had done that.  Had making the day become so crucial to me that logic and basic courtesy needed to be abandoned?

Yes, I apologized to both later, but, after all these years, the pressures of production still lead to these types of moments, to sometimes doing things that are technically correct but not very nice.

My producer's assistant was an incredibly nice young lady, who was doing this project for the love of it and not for money (it was unpaid,as she could not work for pay here). She was earnest and kind. Near the end of the shoot, I asked if doing this job had given her more insight into producing.

She said that it showed her that she did not want to be on the production side. "Seeing how production works has brought out my dark side," she said.

If you met her, the idea that she even had a dark side would be comical.

I'm not about to give up, convinced that there is a compassionate way of producing film that is also practical and efficient. My way of dealing with folks on set reflects this in a much stronger way than it once did, and I will work to keep moving in that direction, work harder to make that work.

My progress will be noted here from time-to-time. Will definitely try to be more successful than the folks below.

*Film is the only medium I know of where the author does not retain copyright, even if it is not a work for hire. It MUST be in the hands of the production company as part of Chain of Title.

** The phrase evidently goes back to the 12th century when women would disfigure themselves to protect their virginity.

***Do you  really need me to define CYA?


Kangas said...

Where'd you learn the whole meditation thing? I sometimes think I should try it--though it's near impossible to get my brain to shut off--but I think I saw some program that was literally thousands of dollars to does one go about trying it?

JB Bruno said...

Kangas, no meditation program should cost thousands of dollars - or much of anything. The only "secret" is to keep at it - all you need is your body - zafu and zabutan are nice, but a chair will do. Follow the link in the article with the word zazen, or repeated here again.

You can use a regular timer, or a soto timer app online (offered in Play Store and Mac apps) to time yourself.

Start simple - maybe 15-20 minutes - the important thing is to commit to whatever time you can handle and stick it out. No matter how long you've been sitting, thoughts come up - don't let that frustrate you - its the letting them go that's important.

If you want something simpler even, there are lots of guided meditation and such on youtube - Deepak Chopra offers a lot, and most should be free.

As for how I started: I walked into a regular Zen center in NYC - they used to offer beginning instruction on Wednesdays, though my center now does it on Sundays. There are other centers in most major cities, and they should never cost more than a suggested nominal donation. I stuck with it because I connected with the teacher, Bonnie Myotai Treace, who I've mentioned here. There are good teachers everywhere.

If you want to know more - feel free to email me.

Kangas said...

Thanks! Will check out the article. Also just got a book called 10% Happier--has a giant subtitle but it's apparently about a reporter who used meditation to calm his crazy mind...