The Lift — A VIFF OFFICIAL SELECTION or: how I learned to stop worrying and make a film in my garage.
Independent filmmaking is incredibly easy, endlessly rewarding and completely worry-free…said no one ever. And no one probably ever will. But here is something someone actually said:
Remember that guy that gave up?
It was question my mother asked me when I had opened up to her about my struggles with filmmaking. I didn’t know the answer at the time, but she did. My mother was always able to be a few steps ahead of me in any conversation. She had a knack for being too witty for her own good. (It’s a genetic disease unfortunately.) She always had the answer to her own rhetorical questions.
My mother was 59 years old when she died last year. Her death marked the end of an era for me. It was the era most independent filmmakers go through. It was the era of failure.
In the summer of 2013, I decided to shoot my first feature film. A film noir entitled Blood Ivy. I was coming off my first short film, Room 303, playing at The National Film Festival for Talented Youth in Seattle. It was the only festival the film played at so I was still incredibly naïve about the world of filmmaking and especially the world of festivals. But attending that festival really motivated me to try and jump into feature filmmaking. I was so passionate and driven by my love for cinema that I felt nothing could stop me. I dove head first (and blindfolded) into feature filmmaking. I had no idea about the highs and great joy I would get from being a filmmaker…and I definitely did not anticipate just how destructive the lows would be.
Film noir was my first love. It was when I took a Film Noir class at my local community college that I was even introduced to cinema. I had seen so many that I thought I could confidently pull off a low budget noir. I managed to save about $5,000 and used that to make the film. I set the whole film to take place in my parent’s home. I had an incredibly talented cast and crew who worked for free. I didn’t want to try and get funding because I was too impatient to deal with waiting for it, if it ever even came. I just wanted to be that classic indie filmmaker who spent everything he had to make a feature! Yes, I know, I was a pretty naïve kid. You’ll hear me admit it endlessly here.
All the money basically went to buying the most delicious food possible (whipped up by my producing partner/Master Chef, Frank D. Paul) because I learned a well-fed crew went a long way. Especially, considering the absolute hellish schedule we had for the film. I thought I was a genius by setting the film at night where my entire cast and crew would be free. Little did I know that this would lead to many sleepless days as people had to go to their day jobs after shooting from 6pm-6am, only to come back to my house as soon as they were off. And trust me, after a while, they came for the food alone. Hell, I was looking forward to crafty everyday too. Every single member of the Blood Ivy cast and crew will always be heroes to me.
We shot Blood Ivy over 16 straight nights in August 2013. The experience was one of the greatest of my life. Sure, it was incredibly tough but at the same time the shoot couldn’t have been more life affirming. I wanted to keep making films with my friends forever. This was the life I wanted to live. I remember thinking that I would work all winter and shoot all summer. Every year. I could be like the indie film scene’s Woody Allen. And how great would it have been if that were to come true.
Shooting a feature was one thing but realizing how difficult putting it all together would be was something I never saw coming. I remember thinking that if I knew how tough it would be I never would’ve even shot the film! Thank God I was stupid enough to go through with it. I just kept telling myself, it’ll be worth it in the end. It’ll be worth it in the end. I kept telling myself this while I laid in the fetal position behind my editor.
Post-production took about 14 months. (yeah that movie every year thing was quickly destroyed by the reality of a feature production.) Again, going back to my naivety. I had no idea what the hell I was getting into. To say that those 14 months were rough would be an understatement. They were brutal. And also brutally honest. I learned just how much I didn’t know about filmmaking. But when it was complete, the feeling of relief was so tremendous. It also taught me just how worth it the whole process was. The feeling of screening the film for the cast and crew was incredible. It just proved it to me that making films was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
By that point in my life, I was truly happy. I had just turned 23 and I had moved out on my own with friends from college, I had my just completed my first feature, and I was in the best shape of my life. I had a good handle on everything in my life.
Life couldn’t be better.
And then in the span of a few months, it all came crashing down. My roommate and I built this real old school gym in our garage. One day while I was working out I messed my back up pretty bad. I didn’t think much of it; I had been actively lifting for almost a decade. So, like the naïve kid I was, I carried on with my life. But a few days went by and I realized that something was very wrong. Eventually, I couldn’t even sleep. I had seriously hurt myself and I continued to make it worse by pushing through the pain. I ended up being bed-ridden from the pain for 6 weeks. I was constantly in pain.
As I withered away in bed, losing massive amounts of weight and strength, I was receiving emails from film festivals. There I was, naively expecting the glowing reviews.
22 year-old Kid Makes Indie Feature!
No-budget Film Accepted into Sundance!
You know, the usual. I was so far from reality. I was so fucking naïve.
In reality, I was getting rejected from every single festival. It felt as if the entire world had hated the film. I wasn’t making the next Slacker, Hard Eight, or Reservoir Dogs. I knew I wasn’t ever going to be those guys but still…I couldn’t help but secretly wish for that. As any first time filmmaker wants to be. I was starting to take every rejection personally. Mixed with the intense physical pain I was going through, I felt like I was getting mentally injured as well. I kept thinking about who I thought I was. I had put so much of my identity in wanting to be this great filmmaker. What a joke I became. I’m shit. I failed as a filmmaker. No one wanted to watch something I poured two years into. Fuck cinema. I wasted so much time on you. I had loved film but now the mention of it sent me spiralling downwards. My identity was gone. It felt similar to that of an athlete who spent his life playing a sport and then stopped. The athlete’s identity of being a hockey player was gone and now what? I know this because that was me. I was that athlete first. I played hockey my whole life and had let it consume my identity. After it ended, I didn’t know my place in the world. Who was I if I wasn’t the goalie for my hockey team? The only thing that saved me at that point was falling in love with cinema. But now it was cinema that led me right back to that dark feeling. Fuck cinema. I fucking hated it.
My collaborators were also slowly dissipating. This turned out to cripple me creatively because I had relied so heavily on them in the past. It’s crazy to me now but I made my first few films without even knowing anything about camera, lighting, sound or editing. My love for cinema had pushed all of it and the extremely talented people I was working with allowed for that to be enough. Everyone was so good at what they did, I didn’t even bother to learn anything. I was stupid enough to think they would always be free to help shoot whatever I was filming. That was dumb. People that talented will always find work. I had nothing to offer them. I mean if they wanted to hear me rant about how shitty my life was, I’m sure they would stick around. But who wants to hear some kid mope about something so stupid. They got jobs, some moved away, and they all began their lives. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen but I selfishly felt deserted and lonely.
To make matters worse, as I lay and received more news of Blood Ivy being tossed aside, I started to hear of other filmmakers getting ahead and getting the success I thought was coming to me. I’m not proud of those days but that’s who I was then. That’s who I was in that era. I was bitter and depressed. I was a physically and mentally weak…child.
When I saw my mother for the last time we had the conversation I alluded to at the beginning. The next day she went to the grocery store and never came back.
Just like that.
Not even the driver of the car knew what happened to my mom.
She was here one day. And completely gone the next. And that was it. She had the chicken she was going to make for dinner thawing in the sink.
I remember feeling the grief.
I can’t even begin…
The kind of grief that I cannot put into words at all.
I was 23 and I didn’t have a mother.
I was 23.
And I didn’t have a mother.
Life couldn’t be worse.
A few months before she passed away, I had told my mom about this idea: A short film that I could shoot all in my garage. It was to be about something I was very passionate about. Lifting. I had spent so many hours in a gym that I knew that world so well and could translate it into a film. It would be a film about the mental struggle of pushing oneself past any pain barrier to achieve a goal. It was a new feeling for me because the genesis was a form of self-expression and not because “movies were cool” for the first time. It actually scared me a bit because I realized that this would be such a personal film and I had yet to have any autobiographical elements in a film of mine.
My mom encouraged me to pursue it but I had put it aside because it wasn’t a feature. I had some stupid idea stuck in my mind that I just HAD to make a feature. Everyone was making features and it was the only way to succeed. I was putting all this unnecessary pressure on myself to try and come up with a feature idea that I could make for no money and with no crew. I had lost all the confidence that I once had which didn’t help anything as I continued to just wallow in self-pity for a few more months. I put script for The Lift away in a drawer.
The week after we spread my mother’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean, I approached my roommate and asked if he would play the title character in the film. I told him that I HAD to make this film. Even though every bone in my body wanted to just do nothing. I had every urge to just give up on everything in my life. But I knew my mom would hate me if I ever did that. I put my head down and got to work.
I spent about week prepping everything. I asked my roommates for gear as they had some I could borrow. However, I couldn’t ask them to be there, as schedules were getting tougher to manage. So I quickly realized that if I was to keep making movies, I had to learn how to do everything on my own. Something I had always shied away from in fear. But I couldn’t run from that reality any longer. I had step up and figure it out, otherwise I would just be a daydreamer…not a filmmaker.
I wrote the film to take place entirely within the gym and this turned out to be one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. This allowed me unlimited access to the set, which will probably never happen again. Plus, being able to borrow all the camera gear from my roommates was another blessing. This unlimited access to gear and set allowed me the benefits of endless practice.
Since the film takes place at night, I couldn’t start shooting until about 9pm. I wasn’t working at the time so I literally would spend all day setting up and going through every single shot I was planning to shoot that night; similar to a football player walking through his playbook at practice before a big game. I would go as far as actually shooting the scenes in advance so I would know exactly how to operate, which lens to use, and where to hide my H4N recorder. This allowed me to get the most out of each shooting day once night fell. It also gave me the opportunity to put in enough practice for focus pulling which I feel is one of the most underrated practices of filmmaking…and I learned how much I really sucked at it.
The shoot was rough. Everyday was brutal. Nothing compared to my previous films at all. For the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to someone else to do the heavy lifting. I had to do every thing on my own. I learned how to operate camera, record sound, set up lights, pull focus, etc. I really became aware of how tough each role was. As much as I hated it, it was really the most beneficial learning and humbling experiences I’ve ever had when it came to filmmaking. A particular shot required a slight push-in on a slider. A shot I’ve used many times in previous work that I always thought was simple. However, it took me 13 takes to even get a usable take. Even after a day of practice! I realized how hard it was to make the push smooth as well as pulling focus at the same time. I had never been so hands-on and it completely opened my eyes to the tough work that all these people had been doing on my films in the past. This was just one of the many enlightening moments I had on this film. My childish naivety was slowly fading. No wonder Kubrick always recommended going out and shooting a movie on your own. Even for a film that lasts a minute he said you would learn everything you need to know about making one. I guess I went backwards as I didn’t touch a piece of equipment on my first few films. But here I was now…going back to basics. And actually learning them for the first time.
As I was physically learning the process of making the film, mentally, I was on the verge of crumbling every day. I was shooting this movie in this fog of grief. Every day I had to resist the urge to completely implode and just leave. If I didn’t have this movie to shoot each night, I think I would have done something truly terrible. Making The Lift at that time probably shielded me from feeling the full force of the grief that came with losing a parent. That didn’t stop my brain from telling me to give up.
Stop wasting your time.
It’s going to look like shit.
You should be in mourning.
You should go be with your family.
She’s never coming back.
You never should have left.
It’s your fault.
I could never shut out my demons completely. But all I could was just start shooting each night. My roommates Gary Chutai and Adam Mainella were very supportive during this time. They came into the gym on various days to help out and I couldn’t be more grateful. Gary was a better teacher of cinematography than the professors I had in film school.
We wrapped shooting in about two weeks and I began post-production. Again, like the theme of the film, I worked in isolation. Editing for the first time completely on my own without the aid of my good friend, Jordan Choo, who had edited everything I had made previously. I spent the next nine months editing The Lift. Nine months to me is not that long compared to Blood Ivy. And I rushed Blood Ivy if you can believe it. I didn’t want to rush this time. I wanted to perfect every piece of the film. That was the biggest thing I learned from my previous work. Don’t rush. Rush when you have to finish that blockbuster in time for its summer release for Warner Bros. But till then… Don’t.
I had to watch YouTube tutorials on almost everything to learn editing. But it was during this time that I realized how grateful I was that I pushed through all those terrible days to get the film done. I look back on the shoot and it feels like a different person had done it. That whole month, in the wake of my mother’s death, I didn’t even feel alive. It was almost as if I was possessed by cinema. To edit the footage was really wonderful. Being in charge of every single edit of the film I could see just how crucial every technical aspect of the film was. I saw all my mistakes but this time…I understood them. I could pinpoint the exact issue.
Maybe use a different lens.
Change the ISO.
Add a different light.
All these little things were parts of the process that I could figure out for the first time instead of just being upset that “the shot was just not good.” This started to give me confidence. The film that I had shot mostly on my own was coming together and you know what, I really liked it. I was comfortable standing behind it as a project I was passionate about.
I had an incredible composer in Manvinder Dhak. His score and sound design skills pushed the film up from amateur to professional. The confidence grew as I realized I could shoot more films like this. I didn’t need to wait for funding or a large crew. Over the course of those nine months, I shot and edited another short film and began shooting my first feature length documentary. I moved back in with my father and our bond grew stronger than it has ever been. I even travelled through Europe for eight weeks. I was living my life again.
My life was getting better again.
I came to understand that my life was never going to be back the way it was during those early years where I loved film so much and had the wonderful support of my mother. So I stopped trying to recreate those feelings. I had finally shed that naïve outlook and began to live every day as best I could. I shed my desperation for having an identity in film and started trying to be myself. I began to actively see old friends routinely, spend time with my father, and travel and learn about other cultures. Sure I wasn’t spending all my time working hard on films anymore but that was okay. I was growing much more as a person and this ended up translating to being a more assured filmmaker.
When I returned from my travels abroad, I received the email that The Lift was going to premiere at the 35th Vancouver International Film Festival. Right here in my hometown. The very festival I had dreamed at playing at since the beginning of this journey. And it was a film I made for nothing in my garage that was taking me there. Sure, cinema had brought me down and nearly ruined me. But, it also gave me the light at the end of the tunnel. Cinema had given me a second chance. It shielded my grief and allowed me to move on in my life. My passion for cinema saved my life.
Now, I should rephrase what I meant at the beginning by “the end of an era.” There is no end to the era of failure. In fact, you shouldn’t want there to be. By failing it means you’re actually doing something. Doing nothing is my new definition of real failure. Wallowing in self-pity is failure. Complaining that it’s too hard is failure.
I was already very proud of The Lift before I received the news from VIFF. I was already rejected from most festivals by then, too. But it wasn’t failure. It was just a matter of opinion. You shouldn’t take any rejection from a festival the way I was used to take it. The real pride is telling a story only you can tell. That is what should drive, energize, and satisfy you.
If you have a film you think you can make, stop worrying and just make it. You probably can. Ask around, you’d be surprised where you might find help. Don’t wait for someone to fund you, don’t wait for all the paperwork to clear, don’t get caught up in self-pity (that last one was really for me) Just jump in and you will learn so much about the process. If you don’t want to take it from me, then listen to Herzog:
Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you must, but stop whining and get back to work. -Werner Herzog
You’re always going to start as an independent filmmaker. It’s going to suck, it’s going to push you, and it’s going to fucking break you down. But if you embrace it… It can also be incredibly fun, endlessly rewarding and completely worry-free. Work hard at it so you can reward yourself with the finished product, shoot it on a set you own, and don’t rush it!
I always go back to my mother’s advice whenever I feel the old demons approaching.
You remember that guy that gave up?
I can hear her answer.
Neither does anybody else.
Manny Mahal is an award-winning writer, director and producer from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He has written, directed, produced and self-financed all of his work. Including a short film entitled Room 303 and a feature length film entitled Blood Ivy. Room 303 was an Official Selection at the National Screen Institute Online Film Festival and The National Film Festival For Talented Youth. Blood Ivy took home the Rising Star Award at the 2015 Canada International Film Festival.
Manny continues to be a triple threat. Writing, directing, and producing his own self-financed work. Including two radically different, yet personal short films: For My Mother and The Lift.
The Lift will premiere at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Manny lives in Vancouver, B.C. and is currently in production on his self-financed first feature length documentary. Directing, producing, and editing a film on the life of his father.