Casting your Dad and other notes on being a creative in the 21st Century.
So in 2011, when I was a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, I made a short film called The VelociPastor. You might have heard of it – it’s like four minutes long and I posted it on YouTube. It got some airplay on things like G4 (RIP) and had some minor viral success and it was cool. After a few months of riding the wave of ‘my success’ and trying to make something happen, it became apparent that the short would just be that: a short. I moved on with my life. I made a feature in 2014 called Animosity which got a DVD release after playing at a few festivals, but same deal: it had some small success and was cool and I moved on with my life.
In 2016 I made a feature-length version of The VelociPastor. After a few months of post, we premiered in early 2017 at the Portland Film Festival.
It is significantly more likely that you’ve heard of this one.
Since the meteoric success of VelociPastor, I’ve had quite a lot of young creative people reach out to me for advice. Because of all of my various projects in progress and being a human being that occasionally needs to sleep, I thought it would be a cool idea to write down some notes for people here so that I can refer people with questions to this article and hopefully help more people out.
This is not a “how to make it” article – first of all, that’s douchey and presumptuous and most of those articles are honestly fucking lies. What I’m going to do here is simply tell you my path, and put down what I hope will be helpful tips along the way. It will be mostly focused on independent filmmaking, as that is my most direct experience, but even if you have no intention of being a filmmaker, I sincerely hope you find something in this helpful.
We’re all in this together guys. Let’s talk about it.
The truth of the matter is that as far as I can tell, “making it” comes down to three very hard-to-define things: perseverance, talent, and luck. In that order. If you can manage to cultivate those three things (and yes, they are things that you practice, like a sport), then you have significantly increased your chances of selling that book, making that movie, charting that song, or whatever wonderful thing it is you do.
Perseverance is absolutely key, and this has several components.
First and foremost: grow a thick skin and learn how to take criticism well, and when to dismiss it outright. When I was in film school, whenever we would complete a short, we would have to screen it in front of the entire classroom and sit there to listen to their notes. Now, make no mistake: if you’ve never done it this is the hardest thing in the entire world. All true artists know the shortcomings of their work well before the audience does, and to hear those shortcomings parroted back can confirm your worst fears, deepen your anxieties, and make you want to give up.
Fight through that shit. Remember that at the end of the day, you gave a part of yourself for the world to see, and no matter how good or bad it is: that act of exposure is within itself brave. Remember that these are peers trying to be helpful, and remember that they have their own likes/dislikes/preferences that might very well differ from your own. It takes practice, but you have to contextualize creative notes.
For instance: my friend Jack adores art film. He likes Michael Haneke and Robert Bresson and all that. He’s a smart, creative guy. My friend Bobby works in cybersecurity and very excitedly took me to see Cats over the winter break. He’s also a smart, creative guy, albeit in completely separate ways from Jack. Bobby and Jack will have very different notes on your work. Contextualize it, and within yourself decide who your intended audience is, and weigh the notes accordingly. If I want an audience of Bobbys, I might just take Bobby’s notes more seriously. If I want an audience of Jacks, I should take Bobby’s notes into consideration, but with the caveat that “Well, that’s what a Bobby will think. Good to know.”
Implement the notes accordingly, so as best to serve what you’re going for. Remember that you can reject notes outright. Trust your instincts above all, but if ten different Jacks and Bobbys tell you that your film is a little slow… well, odds are that it is, and you should probably work to solve that. As with most things in life, it’s a balance.
Another aspect of perseverance is simply that it will probably take a long time for your art to become your sole monetary income. Prepare yourself for that mentally. Don’t beat yourself up if you have to work as a waiter for a while. While VelociPastor was selling out theaters in Madrid, I was driving for Postmates to hit rent, because income from the distributor wouldn’t come in until January, and it was November. I worked as a TA at a film school for a while. I worked as an editor in various post houses. I edited a mercifully canceled reality show called “Booty Queens”, and that paid for post-production on VP. I hated all of it but god damn it I did it because I had a powerful need to eat and finish a movie. No regrets.
Of course you will have classmates and friends who ‘make it’ right out of the gate, but try not to compare your career to theirs. It’s hardly constructive, and frankly down that path lies madness. Try to celebrate and be happy for your friends’ success instead of jealous. This can be a little tricky sometimes, but trust me it’ll make you way happier in the long run, and I promise your friends will appreciate it.
As a final note on perseverance: have a lot of irons in a lot of fires, because you never ever ever ever ever know what will catch. I spent almost a year tweaking the script to Animosity before we shot. I wrote the script for VelociPastor in like three days and barely touched it after the fact. In between them I made short films and edited a lot of content. Soak that in. Be creative in the periphery. Do it long enough and loud enough and graciously enough and eventually someone will notice, I promise you. Your job is to stick it out until they do.
Perseverance. It’s the most important thing.
The Invisible Work
Talent is also very important, but people get this one wrong a lot in the sense that they seem to think that it’s some anointed, divine gift as opposed to a muscle you must exercise, which it is. Yes, there are some people out there who naturally have more of an aptitude for a certain creative field. There are geniuses and savants and wonderful freaks, but they are the overwhelmingly minor percentile of your field. Do you really think Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers came out of the womb understanding how to pace a screenplay? Do you think they were like five years old and sitting there thinking “Hm, well this is good, but I dunno the break into act two is a little weak…”?
No. They spent a long, long time cultivating their talent and experimenting and failing. Like any artist, they were god awful at their craft for a long, long time until finally, they got pretty good. The reason it feels like “they emerged fully formed” is because you didn’t see all the awful failures they had to endure to get there.
This is what I refer to as “the invisible work”. For me, it was mostly in film school, but for a while before and afterward too. I’ve been making films in some capacity since I was about 14, and let me tell you, dear reader, they are uniformly awful until I hit about 20. That is six years of work. A lot of people have commented that I myself seemed to burst in and out of nowhere with VelociPastor. I’m twenty-eight now, so realistically, the editing in VelociPastor is the way it is because I have been working on how to edit for fourteen years. You just didn’t see me doing most of it.
It’s not just actually making your art either, it’s studying it. I’m not saying you have to like “the classics” of your particular medium, but you should at least understand why they’re important. For instance, I find 2001: A Space Odyssey to largely be a pretentious bore, but I understand why it is beloved. It is a truly great, bold, gutsy film. There is a large gulf between “this is good work” and “I like this”, and that is a very important difference to discover within yourself. It’s how you cultivate your taste.
And honestly at the end of the day your taste and your talent go hand-in-glove so closely so as to be almost indistinguishable. The combination of the two is sometimes referred to as your style. I wouldn’t worry too much about trying to be stylistic at first. Just like what you like and make what feels good and true and your style will emerge naturally from there.
Talent is not given, it is cultivated, and importantly it is impossible to cultivate talent in a vacuum.
You must show your work. If you do not show your work, it doesn’t really exist. It is Schrodinger’s Art – both there and not there at the same time. If you write the most beautiful poem of all time and don’t somehow get it out there into the world… well, you kind of didn’t actually do it.
Art requires an audience. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that art only exists in the membrane between the work and the audience, and nowhere else at all.
Make your art. Post it somewhere. Take the feedback, using the perseverance we talked about. This is how you cultivate your talent.
Luck is another part of the creative industry, and no one wants to talk about it ever, but it is true. Granted, I’d consider it by far the least important of this ‘making it’ triumvirate, but it is indeed a factor.
This is the one that you can control the least, but you can line certain things up to possibly get lucky. For instance: when a friend pointed out that a post about VelociPastor was getting some traction on Reddit, I jumped in and offered to do an AMA. This partially played into driving traffic to the post and allowing the film to go viral. I got lucky, but I played a part in maybe helping that luck along.
Honestly, the best advice I have for luck is to understand that it’s mostly out of your control and that the best thing you can do is show up and be present for it. If someone wants to interview you and their readership is like four people? Do the interview anyway. You never know who will click on it or link to it or whatever. You might just get lucky.
Luck can work against you as well. Let’s say you’ve made a great film about a catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil that changes the course of history and you release it on September 8th, 2001.
Well, it was out of your control. Try to pick yourself up and move on and make more luck somewhere else.
This is a tricky one, because it’s important, but it’s also very easy to overdo it. I would try to avoid annoying people as best as possible, because make no mistake: your friends and your family want to be excited about your work, but if you cry wolf every single day of your life? Well, then no one will notice when you do something actually worth getting excited about.
A post on the internet is just that: a post on the internet. It is exactly as paradoxically permanent and fleeting as any tweet you will ever send. If you post something and no one ‘likes’ it? Move on. If you post something and a whole ton of people do? Engage them in the comments like an actual human being and then leave them alone. If you’re forcing people to constantly engage with your art, then usually they will start to feel a little suffocated. Use your judgment and don’t be a jerk.
You might be the kind of person that’s a little shy about posting your art, and here’s a hopefully helpful solution: promote art you love more than your own. Did you just read THE graphic novel of the year? Did your friend just do some stellar work as a colorist and it actually got released somewhere? Post about that. Celebrate the successes of your peers. It spreads goodwill, cultivates a sense of community, and god damn isn’t it just fun to talk about good art? Every once in a while you can sprinkle in a post about something you’ve just completed, and I guarantee that people will be more excited to engage with it if they remember how excited you were to engage with their art.
Art School and Collaboration
One of the most frequent questions I get is young people asking me if they should attend college for their art, and I think this is a really difficult question to answer, so I’m going to speak here in generalities, and please understand that more than any other part of this article, this is a personal, monetarily-dependent decision, and truly only you can answer it for yourself.
I come from a middle-class family, but I had a rich grandma that really wanted me to go to college. Both of my parents are teachers, and my dad is a college professor. “Not going to college” wasn’t really an option for me, but regardless I personally loved going to film school.
I attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and it had all the usual bullshit that any for-profit college had, but I’ll detail here what in hindsight I see to be the positives of my time there.
Firstly, college gives you a relatively consequence-free environment in which to do a lot of your “Invisible Work”. I wrote and directed between five and ten short films a year, every year, for four years. You will never see most of them because most of them are terrible, but college is also maybe the last time in your professional life that you can meaningfully experiment with your medium and no one will give a shit and it doesn’t have to earn money. Take advantage of that. I probably never would have made the short film version of VelociPastor if I didn’t feel free enough to say “screw it, sure” and just go for it. I made it for a class project. Nine years later, my feature adaptation was selling out theaters in like five different countries. That probably would not have happened if not for film school.
Secondly, and honestly, more importantly, art school is a wonderful and useful place to make contacts and cultivate relationships with other artists. I grew up largely in rural Pennsylvania, and in my high school I was “that film guy”. At SVA, every single member of my class was “that film guy” in their high school, and they were from all over the world. Meet these people. Be open to their ideas and experiences. Make friends, god damn it. Not every meeting with another creative has to be this shitty, transactional “what can you do for me??” I still talk to friends I made in film school every single day. I still work with them on every project. I’m going to be the Best Man at my best friend’s wedding this October, and I met him sophomore year of film school.
Thirdly, and genuinely least importantly, you just might learn something new about your art, but between you and me, 85% of it is nothing you couldn’t learn from a podcast or a commentary on a BluRay or simply by doing your art and figuring it out. If points one and two sound like things you need to work on, I suggest you pay for art school. If not, I’d save yourself the money.
This is another aspect of creative fields that is mercifully becoming at least more off a topic of conversation, but I think is woefully underrepresented in actual art instruction. Take your mental health seriously. You do not have to suffer to make good art.
In mid-2019 I started going to therapy for the first time. I started taking antidepressants, which I still take daily. I was an alcoholic, and I got sober. These are important artistic decisions, because honestly if I hadn’t done all of that right before VelociPastor got big, I probably would not be here typing this article for you. I might have hurt myself. Anything could have happened, but I had the maturity and presence of mind to realize that things weren’t going well and to do something about it.
I’ve seldom been prouder of myself. I’ve seldom been happier. In two years or so where my drinking and my depression were really rough, I didn’t write a single screenplay. In the eight or nine months since starting to take control of my mental health, I have written three feature screenplays.
I repeat: you do not have to suffer to make good art.
Or at least you don’t have to cultivate suffering. Trust me: life will do that enough for you. Take care of yourself, for in all likelihood you will be at your most creative when you are monetarily stable, happy, and safe and no other time. I suggest that you figure out how to do this, and then to the best of your ability keep doing it. Keep your art as a place to put any possible self-destructive leanings and get your catharsis there.
One final suggestion for your mental health is to find a hobby that you can’t monetize and make it part of your life. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but trust me: you’ll need “time away”, especially once you get busy. Personally, I like linguistics and rock climbing! I find them engaging and fun activities, and they have nothing at all to do with music or film. I’ve found that in times where I’m getting too stressed out or just feeling overwhelmed with everything, it really helps to escape and devote time and energy towards something that you can’t tie into your Patreon. It’s something ‘just for you’.
It helps give you space to process your feelings and hey, it might just make you happy. If you need to justify being happy to yourself, then I suggest you do some serious self-examination and also remind yourself that you’re most creative when you can actually laugh about something, even if you’re writing a horror film.
How I Made It: A Narrative
It was 2015 and I had finally figured out creatively how to turn VelociPastor into a feature. I wrote a screenplay in three days. I told my friends about it. I tried to fund it through crowdfunding. The campaign didn’t work, but I still had an idea that I wanted to make and I fought through that shit and I kept going. Perseverance.
The girl I was seeing told me that her mom might know an investor. I sent her mother the pitch packet and materials that I had prepared with the script and sent the email. I had sent many, many emails like this and thought nothing of it. Two days later, $35,000 USD came through into my bank account. Turns out that investor was serious and I was officially in pre-production. Luck.
I worked really hard. I got a crew together and using the budgetary limitations to the best of my ability. I divined that with this material and for this story and with my intended audience, it would be best to embrace the micro-budget nature of the movie and try to make that what was fun and engaging and interesting about it. I cast my dad. I edited the movie. It was tough, but I made it happen because I believed in myself and my crew and my idea. Talent.
I released a poster and trailer I loved and paid for out of pocket online to some minor blog attention. The film premiered at Portland to about 50 people in 2017. I went to the screening alone and was so nervous I got drunk before the Q&A. It was very embarrassing and I resolved to do better next time. I went home and I sent the film into about ten different film festivals, understanding that now my “Premiere Status” was no longer available, it would be a less attractive festival prospect. Perseverance.
In early 2018, I moved to Europe. A couple of festival coordinators liked the film and passed it around the indie horror circuit. We played internationally for the first time and I typed up the subtitles myself on the same laptop computer that I had edited the film on. It was so old and broken that it no longer held a charge, so I had to keep it plugged in whenever I used it. Eventually, after some false starts, we accepted an offer of distribution from Wild Eye Entertainment, because their catalog looked very in line with us and they seemed honest and above-the-board. I like to work with people like that, so I turned down an offer for theatrical distribution from some sleazebag that essentially wanted to own the film forever and give me nothing in return, and went with Wild Eye. Perseverance and good sense.
Things didn’t work out in Europe and I moved back to Los Angeles in early 2019. In April, Wild Eye released their version of the film’s poster/trailer the day before Easter. It went viral for the first time. I traveled to conventions, film festivals, screenings. I did every Q&A and podcast and interview offer that came in. Wild Eye hired a PR company to help me and my crew keep up, and we fulfilled our side as much as we could. We were not under contract to do this. We did it because we believed in the film and loved it. The film was three years old at this point. I took over social media for the film, particularly Twitter, and used it to spread the film to more people. Luck.
Things died down for a while, and the film released on DVD and streaming in August of 2019. Now that the initial wtf factor had died down and people could actually see the art, they realized it was actually of quality. Things buzzed pretty well for a while and I considered the film to be a success and started moving on and planning the next movie. Talent.
In January 2020, a user named tkokilroy posted an image of The VelociPastor in r/funny. The film went very viral. We shot to being the top film on Amazon Prime. We shot up the IMDb charts. We sold out every single physical copy on earth. I wrote this article. Luck.
That’s “how I made it”. Perseverance, talent, luck, and fourteen years of work that you guys didn’t see.
Stay healthy, stay positive, don’t get discouraged, understand that everyone is only human and will make mistakes, both artistically and interpersonally. Understand that your heroes are not infallible, understand that they went through every part of this when you didn’t yet know them. Be true to yourself, be kind to your peers, make your goddamn art, and get it out into the world. Push the world, and if you stick it out long enough and keep pushing, the world will eventually push back, I promise you.
Good luck, everyone. I’ll be rooting for you.
Brendan Steere, written at a cafe in Hollywood, February 2020.
Brendan Steere is a filmmaker, musician, and author, who currently lives in Pasadena, CA. He speaks three languages and lives with a cat named Cheddars who thinks he’s ‘like okay.’ He is currently working on the screenplay to the second VelociPastor film, and his debut book of short horror fiction should be out in May.