In Lean Team Pro Tip #3, I wrote that “I always keep my goals as a lean team documentary filmmaker front and center when asking” what kind of film I want to make. “If I can’t make my film as a one-person or two-person team, on a small budget, within a manageable time frame, and still earn money doing my other work, then I don’t begin the project.” But there is another pre-requisite to beginning a film that is harder to define yet, in some ways, it’s the most important consideration. It involves a question: Ask yourself if it is curiosity or passion that compels you.
How often have we told others, when describing an artistic endeavor, that we are following our passion or that what we are doing is a labor of love? As though these handy catchphrases alone validate the time, money, and creative energy we put into it? Too often, passion is all consuming. It blinds us to reality, bleeds us dry emotionally and financially, and burns us out. Once the passion has run its course, what next? Heartbreak? Emptiness? Depression?
To become a practicing filmmaker (and by practicing I mean a filmmaker who continues to find new films to make, and who with every film learns something new about their craft and about the world) takes stamina, courage, persistence, and some kind of sustainable money stream. It also takes curiosity. Not passion, curiosity. A curiosity about new places, people, ideas; a curiosity about stories and the potentially innovative ways to tell them. Curiosity–and another one of my watchwords, self-expression–turn up as two of the five main motivations for making documentary films in the pdf attached to this Cost of Docs survey from the UK’s Whicker World foundation.
In her engaging book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the much-adored and much-maligned Eat, Pray, Love) writes about this kind of curiosity as a defining trope of your existence as a creative artist. Big Magic is indeed a self-help book, and Gilbert tries to encourage those who know they have creative potential to find ways to unlock it. She believes that curiosity can overcome fear and self-doubt, and that it is infinitely more important than a singular passion when building a life as an artist (any artist, not just a writer or painter or dancer). Sure, you can say you’re passionate about documentary filmmaking, but be careful about allowing one film to consume your entire existence (your money, your friendships, your family; your need for sleep, recreation, fresh air, and fun).
Inspired by Gilbert, the word curiosity pops up throughout Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, especially when it comes to the many films of Werner Herzog. Herzog’s philosophy is to both shoot and edit in as few days as possible. He is curious and eager to move on to the next film. As I write in my book, “his run of films in the last few years attest to this way of working (Encounters at the End of the World was shot in just seven weeks). Not all of his films are masterpieces, but Herzog’s speed and curiosity are inspiring examples of how to sustain your energy and output in the world of documentary filmmaking.”
I’m passionate about a few things–my family, foreign language films, iconoclastic directors, tasty local beer, hiking in the mountains, and Townes Van Zandt–but when it comes to subject matter for my next film, curiosity–not passion–is the spark that lights the fire of creativity.
Coming soon in Lean Team Pro Tip #5: Evaluating your project.