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How COVID Taught Me To Collaborate

Summer 2020 - The world is on total COVID lockdown. I leave my apartment only to go on drives to nowhere or extremely occasional walks. I work from home full time, but work is slow as the movie business is figuring out how to move forward. I have few friends that I talk to consistently, and I have A LOT of time to think.

One of the main topics is why I am living in Los Angeles? What am I getting out of the experience? I am 3,000 miles from my family - almost as far (if not further) from most of my friends and I’m alone during a global pandemic.

I decided to pursue filmmaking in LA in middle school - I never wavered from that goal. I don’t think I even explored other options in high school - but I also didn’t have anyone in my circle with creative aspirations. My friends were supportive, participating in my ambitious and fun short film ideas, but they never got the itch for filmmaking the way I did.

As I go through my history, I realize I have never had creative partners or collaborators. Even going to two different art colleges, I could never cultivate a group of creatives around myself. I missed having people to push my creative ambition, expand my skill set or share successes and failures. I was consistently a one-man band trying to play an orchestra full of music.

It was challenging to wrap my mind around what had gone wrong. I looked around and saw classmates and friends finding their creative families all around me. I desperately wanted that for myself, but I failed every time I tried to build it. For years I had struggled with a desire to find a family for myself. I joined a fraternity in college hoping to find true brotherhood - I didn’t. I volunteered with the college basketball team, hoping that my second love, sports, would help me find my people - it didn’t. Since moving to LA, I’ve made short films and tried to use the same crew to build this family through art - that hasn’t worked. What was wrong with me that I could not make these lasting connections?

These thoughts swirled through my brain as I quarantined in my barely air-conditioned apartment in North Hollywood. My first instinct was to blame external forces.

  • No one will work with me; they’ll only work for money.

  • My work schedule is too intense for me to maintain personal relationships.

  • I’m not creating enough, so people don’t think of me as a creator.

That felt like a cop-out immediately, but it was good enough to let myself off the hook for a little while.

As the pandemic raged and the lockdown became politicized, I saw what those thoughts looked like in a different context - first with masks and then with vaccines.

It was selfish not to wear a mask throughout 2020 and most of 2021. From the beginning of the mask-wearing requirement, it was clear that masking protected others from you more than it protected you from others. It was a collective action. It did not center on the individual wearing the mask - it focused on the good for society.

Not shockingly - a country that had elected Ronald Reagan in the 80s and Donald Trump 36 years later was not interested in participating in a selfless act. In the America I have grown up in, the individual is always centered. If it’s not good or necessary for ME, it’s not good or necessary at all.

Watching full-grown adults protest mask requirements, holding up signs ranging from “We Want Haircuts” to “Socialism Sucks” and beyond, was a bit of a wake-up call for me. Since high school, I have been becoming more and more liberal, more progressive, more socialist. I believe that the government should provide certain things (like healthcare) for its citizens, and I believe that as citizens, we should think about the group more than the individual most of the time. I have voted based on these beliefs, and I have argued with friends and family members over these beliefs - and yet, when it came to my creative life, I wasn’t living by these beliefs.

As I went through the moments where I should have been finding my creative family with this new lens, it became clear why it hadn’t happened yet. I had been centering my search for a creative group around how the people in that group could help ME, not how we could all help EACH OTHER. I couldn’t find a group of consistent collaborators because I hadn’t been looking for collaborators - I had been looking for employees.

When I was in film school in Boston, did I miss out on finding collaborators because I was a transfer who spent too much time with basketball players? No - it was because I ignored every literal sign looking for film crew members because I thought, if I’m not directing - what’s the point? At some point in my life, I expected to find a group of people who looked at me and said, “Wow, he’s a genius. I must be around him at all times and do whatever he wants to do.” That’s not real life. Real life means understanding that being a grip on a student film isn’t about loving lighting - it’s about learning about lighting, meeting the people who know lighting more than you and can teach you how to do it, and building a network of collaborators.

I admit it - I was a narcissistic, only child syndrome-suffering, me-centered asshat.

One of the few film sets I worked on while at Emerson

As I came to this conclusion, I realized I had to change. In some ways, I had already started. College me could not imagine that I was the problem (it’s me). Pre-COVID me was still optimistic I’d find my people but knew there was a reason it hadn’t happened. Despite this, since 2016, I have been awoken to the injustice in the world and have been actively taking stock of my role in it. The seed of Reagan area individualism had been implanted in my mind over my first 25 years, but the 2016 election started excavating that seed, and COVID killed it completely.

Since the worst of the pandemic is seemingly behind us (I’ll believe it when we don’t deal with another spike over the winter, but that’s a different post for a different blog), I have been once again looking for my creative family. Now though, I’m not looking for what people can do for me; I’m looking for people I want to work WITH. I’ve found a wonderful group who I’m making a TikTok series with (more on that in a later post), but I’m also reading their scripts, giving feedback on websites, and being their cinematographer when called upon.

Changing my mindset to more collective thinking was just the first step. The next step in finding my people has been going outside my comfort zone. Looking back on my college days, I didn’t just think that it was a waste of time to work on sets where I wasn’t directing - I was also scared of not knowing something and embarrassing myself in front of the exact people I was trying to win over. In my mind, I would be useless if I was on the crew to set up lights and didn’t know how to do that. Not for a single moment did I think to myself - this is how you’ll LEARN how to do this. This is all a part of collective thinking - we must support one another to move forward as a group.

If you’re looking for your creative group or collaborators, make sure to ask yourself what you’re willing to do for the creative people in your life. How outside your comfort zone are you ready to go? I realize now that anyone looking for a collaborator will appreciate me for coming, giving it 100%, and having a positive attitude. Even if the result isn’t what that person wanted, they’ll still reach out again the next time they have a project and answer your call/text/Facetime when you have one.

It is not ideal that it took a global pandemic for me to figure out that I had to be collaborative to find collaborators - but it did. I’m sure I would have figured it out eventually; probably too late to change it. However, I’m so glad I figured it out when I did. I’m optimistic about the future and who will be in it with me.

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