The story shapes you

A still from "Charging". Image: Ben Sullvan/supplied.

Sydney filmmaker Sunny Grace on the process of making her new short film, Charging – and the way stories have their own demands which must be met. 

For the past few weeks I have been making the short film I pitched to win this.

It is only seven minutes long and yet consuming months of my life and giving me some harsh life lessons. I went into the process full of idealism and excitement but today I find myself full of doubt and trepidation for the week ahead.

The shoot itself went well enough. As this is the second piece I have directed, I was nervous about having the coverage and getting performance. About making sure we have everything to tell the story. At the end of the two days I had seen enough on the monitor to be happy with what we had captured. Over the next few days I watched the rushes (the footage) and was thrilled to see what I considered to be magic moments.

The following week was the edit process. I am not as confident in this space of reshaping the story based on what is “in the can”. It was challenging for me to see a very different version of what I had imagined it to be. The editor and I struggled to find common ground on one scene but the rest of the edit she has crafted into a beautiful, magical version of what I had written.

Now we find ourselves stuck on the one scene. I thought I had let it go. But for some reason, it keeps nagging at me to try to get it back to how it was written in the script. 

I have been struggling with this for the past week. Conflict is not my strong point. I have avoided it since I was a small child. As a producer, I manage to resolve conflict between others. As a director, I am struggling to assert myself. 

Perhaps it is easier for me when I am producing, as it is not my vision. I am supporting other people’s creative vision but when it comes to my own vision, I find myself struggling with self-doubt.

This stopped me from sharing my writing for a long time. Until I started to learn the skills to take creative criticism objectively. This is still a work in progress for me. Sometimes, I too readily revise my work based on other’s ideas of what is working or not. 

Perhaps the editor’s version of the scene is better in terms of filmmaking but I am not sure it is better in terms of my story. This is a personal story based on my own experiences, as is most of my writing. Perhaps this makes it harder for me to step away or to see other ways of telling the story. 

“The story is a hard taskmaster. It has certain needs. In trying to meet its needs, the story starts to shape me.”

– Sunny Grace

I don’t pretend to have the answers to solve this conflict. I do know I am no longer afraid of making mistakes to learn. Of trying and failing rather than not trying at all. I love this from Peter Weir: “I wish you a fantastic failure.”

Weir also talks about intuition and the unconscious in filmmaking. I think this is where I find myself in the process now. Something in my gut is telling me to recut the scene back to match the script. Tomorrow the editor and I will try to make it work.

Then we can get back on track for the rest of post-production: sound design, music and the grade. All of these elements along with the edit can elevate a film from being mundane to magic. Filmmaking is a very collaborative medium and I thought I could be a very collaborative director but I have learnt there must be a captain of the ship or it can take a very different course. 

You have to take risks but also know when to go back to the story you are trying to tell, even if it means sailing through the storm to get back into clear waters.

All this time, it is supposed to be us shaping the story and yet so much of it is the story shaping us. The story is a hard taskmaster. It has certain needs. In trying to meet its needs, the story starts to shape me. I go on my own journey from certainty to doubt to intuitive to stubborn and back to certainty. 

I have to learn to recognise who I can trust with the story. Which opinions to take and which to leave. I have been lucky to have wonderful mentors through this process as part of the prize. Not all their advice has been useful. Some recommendations did not work out best for the project. Some notes haven’t resonated with my telling of the story. 

However, all these questions and opinions help me become a better filmmaker and writer. To question each choice and to learn to back myself. To advocate for myself in a role I have dreamt of since I was a teenager but have been afraid to try for fear of failure. 

There will always be failures. Nothing is perfect. Sometimes by embracing the imperfections we find the magic.

As we continue this journey over the next few weeks, I will try to listen to my intuition and back my choices. I am learning how to shape the story, just as the story is helping to shape me and find my voice.

The final film will premiere here: https://www.screenfest.com.au/program/charging-premiere/.

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director, and a graduate of the Masters in Performance Writing at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.

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