Film Independent Thu 9.28.2017

This Is How We Do It: The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Filmmakers

Each month in This Is How We Do It writer Cortney Matz mines her own frustrations to explore issues of productivity, coming away with (more or less) helpful thoughts on finishing that pesky screenplay, short film or whatever else may be vexing the artistic mind. Warning: this is not an advice column.


If you’ve been alive in the world long enough to read this blog under your own power, chances are you know about Stephen R. Covey’s treatise on the daily practices and habits that highly effective people tend to share. One of those habits involves managing time so that truly important work gets the attention it deserves—rather than giving way to urgent/unimportant work or the inevitable non-urgent/unimportant work that creeps into our day.

As filmmakers, we don’t always have the structure in our workday to sit down and prioritize these things. When life is rushing toward you at the speed of meetings, phone calls, shot lists and the odd equipment malfunction, those urgents can pile up quick. So I’ve concocted this little allegory to help highlight some typical ways that filmmakers tend to be dragged astray from effectively working toward our storytelling goals.

Tell me if you see yourself anywhere in this picture.


Please enjoy this license-free daguerreotype of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Once upon a time, there was a young filmmaker named Snow White. Inspired by her seven bearded mining friends, Snow White set out to make a film about them. Along the way, she hit some roadblocks.

Insufficient Preparation

On Day One, a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Snow White met with her first interview subject, Dopey. Dopey didn’t know what Snow White wanted him to do. Snow White began to coach him on how to do his job as if the camera didn’t exist, but became distracted—her iPhone was nearly out of storage space. While uploading to the cloud, her battery died. Frustrated, Snow White resolved that tomorrow she would do better.

Starting Late

The next morning as Snow White responded to each text from Sleepy requesting a delay on their start time, she likewise hit snooze on her own alarm—she was tired too. Minutes became hours, and breakfast time became lunchtime. Suddenly, Snow White was scrambling to feed herself, get dressed, arrive at the mine and collect her notes in order to meet Sleepy and capture moments from his “day”—which at this point was about the last hour before sunset. As the miners hi-hoed! their way home, Snow White kicked herself for letting the day get away from her. Tomorrow she would do better.

Checking Email/News/Web

For Day Three, Snow White was up bright and early to meet Doc as he was prospecting for new dig sites—a truly fascinating scene to capture for the film. Things were clicking along, when Doc happened to mention the relative value of different gems. Taken with the idea, Snow While did a quick web search on her iPhone. Soon, both of them were lost in a click-hole abyss of non-urgent research. Oh, but tomorrow… she would have to do better.

Beating a Dead Horse

Day Four. Bashful worked diligently while Snow White tried to get past his reserve, asking what she felt were important, soul-searching questions. It was obvious after a few hours that this was getting her nowhere. But with three ineffective days behind her, Snow White was determined to soldier on. The sun set with two minutes of useable audio in the can, and Snow White sighed. Tomorrow just had to be better.

Disruptive Environments

On Day Five, an interview with Grumpy was nothing but chaos: noise, interruptions, rowdy behavior. Snow White couldn’t find any peace to create. Day Six was just the opposite. Happy was so much fun to be with, Snow White simply let the good times roll and failed to capture much of it on her phone. Finally, Snow White wrapped her shoot with Sneezy on Day Seven. Ignoring the discomfort of the space they were in (it was convenient, cheap and had worked well for the other characters) Snow White tried to shoot around Sneezy’s dust allergies—to no avail. The day ended, and so did the film.



Ah… now you’re organized and ready to work!

Out of time and out of energy, Snow White discovered that she had been an ineffective filmmaker. But those seven days weren’t a complete waste. Each had taught Snow White something important about herself and her creative process.

The moral of the story is:

  1. Plan ahead
  2. Start early
  3. Work first and check email/do research later
  4. Get perspective and switch gears when things aren’t working
  5. Find the quiet you need
  6. Save the fun times for after work
  7. Set up a work environment that is ideal for you and your collaborators

These are habits that will allow us to do our important work—even if it’s not urgent—while also attending to the other necessities of a modern life.


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