The Mentoring Mindset as A Key to Film Sustainability

Today's guest post is from filmmaker Chris Ohlson.  Chris produced one of the indie films that I truly enjoyed last year, THE OVERBROOK BROTHERS.  Check it out; you won't be disappointed.  He's making the move into directing now. I was recently invited to the IFP Narrative Filmmaker Labs with my directorial feature film debut Melvin. (the IFP Labs workshop and mentor 10 narrative works-in-progress that showcase ‘creative promise and vision’) To be able to participate in the Labs was a truly humbling and altogether amazing experience – and I have much to share.

But first, some quick and fast back-story. I’ve been a working producer and production manager surviving by doing commercials, web series and music videos. In recent years, I have acted as some variation of a producer on films like The Overbrook Brothers, Lovers of Hate and The Happy Poet. So that’s what I do, but not necessarily who I am. I am a filmmaker.

Back to the Labs. Early in the week Scott Macaulay (Editor of Filmmaker Magazine and producer of Gummo and Raising Victor Vargas, among many others) said something that brought the Labs to life for me. “As a producer,” he said, “I try to learn from my mistakes and I try to never make that particular mistake again on the next film, or the one after that.”

Simple enough, right? But I was thunderstruck.  It was like that moment when, as an adult, you realize that your parents are just regular people—mortal and finite—doing their best to survive. “If Scott Macaulay is still making moviemaking mistakes,” I thought to myself, “what hope is there for me and for the rest of us in this room?”

Now, two things. First, I don’t necessarily completely believe him (that he makes many mistakes, that is). But I do appreciate his efforts to relate to us. And I dig what he was saying… that when it comes to the actual making of the movie, there are no superheroes, no secret societies, no magic wands and no secret handshakes.

In fact, I’ll risk being a little too confessional here: his words were the first glimmers of warmth in quite some time to penetrate down to the darkest depths of my filmmaking soul, because what he was saying to us was, in effect, “You are not alone.”

Why is that confessional? Because at 34 years old, I feel old. I feel like I am constantly making mistakes. I feel like I have expended so much effort and am only now finishing my very first feature. Time and time again I have shouldered that can-do, DIY, DIWO, by-any-and-all-means-necessary attitude that—damn-it-all-to-hell—gets things done, and I have in this way soldiered my way toward concrete results. And it has been tumultuous. Exhausting. Lonely. And, being more honest here than I should be, I’ll admit that I rarely, if ever, have wondered about the BIG reward at the end of all of this.

It probably says a lot about my insecurities that on Day One of the Labs my imposter complex was in overdrive. I felt out of place. I felt like neither I, nor my film, had the cache to command the support of a national organization (one that I’ve followed for as long as I knew what independent films were). I felt like there had been a mistake. But by Day Five, the last day, things had changed.

But if you think I’m taking you toward the happy ending here—that if you stick it out long enough then good things will automatically happen—you’re wrong. This is filmmaking. And what’s an independent film without an ambiguous and sometimes infuriating ending? The Labs are phenomenal, no doubt. But they are no guarantee of success or recognition or certainty of any reward. Nor do the Labs make the road traveled any shorter or less grueling.

What the Labs do, is remind you that, as Scott implied, You are not alone. And by the end of the last day, I felt not only like I was amid a group of individuals who had traveled their own lonely road, but I also felt assured that the lonely road was the only road that would have led to that place. My fellow filmmakers were walking that road just as our mentors and Lab leaders had done before us. The lonely road felt, momentarily, a little crowded.

And, okay, the Labs were rewarding (if rewarding can be kept separate from a reward). Because aside from the philosophical assurance of being in good company, the Labs are populated and produced by actual people. One more time, by actual people. Regular people. Amazing people like Susan Stover and Amy Dotson and Jon Reiss and Tricia Cooke (just to name a few that I connected with). People who are available to help and people who want to advise.

Perhaps the presence or the idea of a mentoring model shouldn’t have struck me with such force. But it did. It was a revelation. It made me realize how critical it is to making cinema, to making art, and to making our voices be heard. I’m not looking for bottom line budget numbers or specific salaries or stories about ‘the making of’ certain films; I’m looking for nuts and bolts information and honest, frank feedback that allows me to create better films. This is what the IFP Labs were for me and per their mission statement, what the IFP wants to do more of. I’m 34 years old, which it turns out is sorta-kinda young by industry standards, and I sorta-kinda feel like I just got the keys to my first car.

And I’d go further. I’d suggest that what we really need is a Mentoring Mindset. Because as far as I have traveled down this road, there are others who are just now beginning their journey. And, I’d like to think that as much as I can benefit from the guidance of those ahead, there are others who can benefit from me, from where I now stand. And if I share what I can, with whomever I can, the result will be the creation of better films.

So, my conclusions: first, take philosophical comfort that you are not alone. Second, give generously of your experience whenever you can. Among many things, my experience at the IFP Labs has pushed me towards an almost evangelical fervor that we need to permeate filmmaking with a Mentoring Mindset. Let Us Go Forth and Mentor.

Anyway, that’s my $.02. Thanks so much for your time—and to Ted for allowing me to share my thoughts and recent revelations here. Chris Ohlson

Chris Ohlson is a producer and director currently in post-production on his feature directorial debut film, MELVIN. He worries far too much about his calendar and often doesn’t sleep because of tomorrow’s to-do list. For more information, check out http://chrisohlson.com.