According to the definition, failure is a lack of success. It’s interesting that dictionary.com defined it in this way. A lack of success. It’s seemingly inevitable to experience a certain level of failure in order to succeed. When you think about it, any successful filmmaker would also be considered a failed filmmaker. Is there a level of success one must experience to no longer be considered a failure? What is the measure of success?
One hell of a question. Thinking back on my career, it’s been 10 years of jumping from failure to failure, in the pursuit of trying to find success, something that seemingly can’t be measured. Like a long ass game of hide and seek, I peek around each corner hoping to find what it is I’m looking for. A 10-year pursuit that first had me looking in a small acting studio in Michigan.
Action Shot of Me Writing
The year was 2009. I was a senior in college, walking through the hall as I came upon a flyer posted on a small corkboard. SODA, The Society of Dramatic Arts. A student group was holding auditions for a play titled “Flaming Idiots” and I decided to do one thing I never do and go for it. Try something new. With no acting experience whatsoever, I was like a toddler on the side of the pool who just decided to jump into the deep end without my floaties on(a recurring theme in my career).
In the auditorium, standing on stage, shaking and terrified I fumble my way through the lines. I stunk the place up, but I got the part. This was purely a numbers game. In the small university, we didn’t have enough people interested, to fill the roles. They had no choice but to cast me. They were out of options. Little did I know, this moment would change the course of my life. It would push me in a new direction.
At the end of 2009, I graduated with a degree in computer science and like many I couldn’t find a job. Working at Subway and still living with my parents, I decided to continue with my artistic endeavors. I didn’t have anything to lose so what the hell, right? That’s when I found a small acting studio in Michigan and it was only located about an hour away from where I lived. The keyword here...only.
Eventually finding a job, I would go on to work 40 hours a week while driving back and forth to this acting studio, 3 days a week, for the better part of 3 years. On top of classes, I was invited to participate in 2 independent feature-length films (through the studio) where I would work on weekends, both in front of and behind the camera. I wanted to be in a movie and this was my chance. I had a goal to see myself up on the big screen and that goal was about to be met. Except, it never was.
I never made it up on the big screen. Hell, I never made it on any screen. Films unfinished and my dreams never realized, it was time to seek other acting opportunities, but there was a problem...I was afraid. Terrified really, to put myself out there further and audition for other projects. Defeated and with a lack of options, that’s when I decided that if nobody is going to put me in a movie, I’ll just make one and put myself in it. Genius.
If you want something in life, you have to attack it relentlessly. NOBODY is going to give you anything. If I would’ve been brave enough to take the leap and audition for other films, my career might look very different. In short, if you want to be an actor, then put yourself out there AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Someone wants you in their movie.
Still from my first short film "Driven by Love"
Idiot. That’s how I would classify myself when thinking back to my first short film, Driven By Love. I had little knowledge and even less experience. I was doomed from the start, considering I wrote a film that primarily takes place at night and I didn’t own any lights. Hell, I didn’t think I needed any. I was actually confident in that fact. Like I said, idiot. The final product would go on to back up that sentiment entirely.
Soldiering on, I marched forward with a smile on my face. Gathering friends from my acting class, we set off to make our first film. It was going to be great. A goddamn masterpiece if you will. I was going to be the next Tarantino. That was my mindset and then I saw the final product. It was shit. I didn’t know what I was doing and it showed. A dream come true, to see myself on screen, turned into a nightmare as I then declared, I’ll never act again. I officially failed as an actor.
Admitting defeat is tough and it never gets easier. I was defeated on that day, no doubt about it, but one thing is important...I wasn’t discouraged. I actually smiled at the end result. Nobody else might’ve been smiling, but I was. I found passion in that project. I found a new challenge. On that day, I decided it was time to become a filmmaker. I wanted to take the ride again and I wanted to do it better.
Shortly after my first failed attempt, we set off to make our second short film, Daydreams of A Night Clerk. An improved script and my lessons learned, I knew EXACTLY what not to do. The only problem was, I still didn’t really know what TO do. I thought I knew more than I did. I thought I was ready to make my masterpiece, but I wasn’t. Ignorance is bliss, right?
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.The results of my second film might be worse than that of my first. The image quality is much better but between the shitty effects, terrible green screen and robotic dialogue, I once again would come up short. My dreams of a masterpiece shattered but somehow, my spirit remained intact.
When I go back and watch my first two films I can’t seem to figure out which one makes me cringe more. In the first film, you essentially can’t see anything that’s happening. The second one, on the other hand, you can see just fine, but that dialogue...damn. I fixed one problem and caused an entirely new one. What’s an artist to do? Like any sane person with two failed short films under their belt, there was really only one thing for me to do. It was time to make a feature.
Still from my first feature "Pink Heat"
Reflecting back on those first two films, I wouldn’t change them for anything. They aren’t great but as someone who learns by doing, they taught me so much. Aside from the lessons learned, I have fond memories of spending time on set with my friends, sharing in a dream, all moving towards a similar goal. My only regret is that I didn’t create more, that I didn’t fail more. To get to success, you need to get through the failures right? So fail faster.
I had read Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field and followed that up with Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez. Now with a better understanding of storytelling and the inspiring story by Robert Rodriguez, I was ready. I thought I, if Robert can do it, then so can I.
Essentially, Robert wrote a movie about a guy with a guitar case full of guns. His script was roughly 45 pages long and he had a 90-minute movie. I decided to mimic this approach. I wrote a script about a girl with two pink guns and I titled it, Pink Heat. This was the first of many failures as the question I constantly get asked is, is it a porno? It’s not.
Pink Heat was written at 45 pages and it’s about a girl who kills people with some pink guns. It was going to be fast-paced, full of action, and sexy as hell. I would proceed to fail on all accounts. I didn’t know how to shoot an action movie. Hell, I could hardly shoot a simple scene where two people are just standing across from each other having a conversation. But, this didn’t stop me. Working with 20 people over 17 days, I navigated things marvelously. It was as if I finally knew what I was doing, except I didn’t.
The final film cut together at 45 minutes, exactly one minute per page. I worked my ass off to have a feature and I came up short. Disappointed is an understatement. Identifying that I had a problem, I was looking for a solution. I was determined to force this film into a feature. That’s when I made a decision that ultimately kills the picture.
To solve my problem, I added slow-motion, reused scenes as cutaways, and shot an additional day to help pad the story. What was supposed to be a fun, exciting, action-packed film, just became a slow roller. I may have ruined the picture but I wanted a feature and that’s what I had. I officially became a feature filmmaker, with a movie streaming on Amazon. Ultimately proud of my accomplishment, it really didn’t amount to much and I needed to move on.
"Pink Heat" Poster
If it’s not on the page, it won't be on the screen. I wish I had this advice before Pink Heat. I wish I could go back and write the additional 45 pages necessary for this movie. I wish I could change a lot of things. However, I don’t dwell on the past. I’ve moved on. It’s important to let our failures be what they are and leave them as a thing of the past. Learn from them but don’t dwell. Don’t have regret.
Shortly after the release of Pink Heat, I wrote a 114-page script titled The Remedy. Failing to find financing for the picture and not sure what to do next, I submitted my screenplay to the Beverly Hills Film Festival and I got in. This was supposed to change everything but being an introvert didn’t help my chances. The festival was fun and a good experience but coming home without a win and no new contacts or leads, I would fail yet again. Back to the drawing board.
"The Remedy" Poster
Writing and having a script simply isn’t enough. You HAVE to put yourself out there. You HAVE to be willing to network. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a festival, don’t squander the opportunity as I did. Meet people, talk about your project, make connections, and network. Nobody is coming to help, you have to seek it out.
Over the next few years, I would go on to make one more short film and write a few additional feature-length screenplays. I’ve submitted to festivals and failed to get into them all. I’ve never really had success as an independent and yet, I continue to just move forward for some reason. I continue to create and enjoy it every time. I still have the passion.
That’s one of two things consistent in my career, passion, and drive. When I thought about it, I couldn’t really understand why. What drove me? I always thought, money and success were the driving factors for my potential film career. They weren’t. Looking over the last 10 years I couldn’t help but reflect. Why did I do the things I did? Why would I want to continue forward? What’s my motivation? What’s my "why"?
The search took some time, but there was a throughline. I loved to lead, tell people my story, and hope to inspire them to be better. That’s my why. Education and inspiration through determination. It’s why I made films and continue to create. It's why I started The Failed FIlmmaker. It’s why I’m here telling my story today.
So, what is the measure of success? Only you can decide that. For some, it might be a large sum of money and others it could be festival wins. It might be trophies and accolades or it could simply be finishing a film. What is YOUR measure for success? Mine is to educate and inspire. With social media, I can post something every day and achieve my goal. I can succeed. I can take my catalog of failures, something that once made me feel like a loser and leverage it to win, every fucking day. That’s success.
Being a failed filmmaker isn’t a bad thing. It’s a badge of honor. It says I’m here. I showed up, I did the damn thing and I’ll continue to do it again and again. It says I’m strong, I’m able and willing to fight for the things I believe in. It says you can’t keep me down.
So go forward and get knocked down. Be brave and willing to fail. Own that shit when you do. Be willing to put yourself out there. Be willing to be a failed filmmaker.
About Sean LaFollette (The Failed Filmmaker)
An independent film expert with over 10 years of experience. Currently in pre-production of a new feature-length film titled What About Molly, while I also move towards my goal to educate and inspire through my website, The Failed Filmmaker. Find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.
Watch my movie Pink Heat on Amazon here.
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