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Guide

How to stay sane and healthy while making a film

A filmmaker’s guide to protecting your mental, emotional, and financial health, written by Joshua Sanchez and illustrated by Molly Fairhurst.
Prelude

When most people think of the movie business, they think of sharks. The Harvey Weinstein, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese type of alpha male risk-taker. The movie director is often thought of as someone who is gregarious, relentlessly pitching, always selling their idea to anyone who will listen, and with a seemingly insatiable appetite for networking.

That’s not me.

I’m a classic introvert and I suffer from mental illness. Specifically, I have clinical depression, dysthymia (a chronic low-level depression), anxiety, and social anxiety disorder. I come from a family riddled with mental illness and addiction and most of that was passed down to me.

In July of 2011, I walked onto the set of my first feature film Four, which was adapted from a play by the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Christopher Shinn. Directing this film was a dream that I’d worked for six years to achieve. Once released, the film was well received critically, and was distributed widely in the US and abroad. From all outside measures, it was a success.

But after all the hoopla with the film was over, the deepest depression I’ve ever known hit me like an anvil. The moment I stepped foot out of bed each day my body ached. I would weep uncontrollably for hours at a time. I felt sucked into a black hole.

I’d put everything on the line to make this movie. Every resource I had and didn’t have. So while the film seemed like a success, I felt I had let the project down. It made little money. The distribution was misguided and ill-timed by most accounts. The cast and crew looked to me for answers, and I didn’t have any. I felt guilty that I’d let them down and shame that I’d squandered money that didn’t belong to me for such a lofty purpose. I realized that my film’s success—not just overall, but on every possible level—was simply life or death to me. Mentally, emotionally, and physically, I collapsed.

Thankfully, I got help. Now I’m able to mostly control my depression and anxiety with therapy, medication, exercise, and spiritual practice. As I work on new film projects, I practice intensive self-care to help prevent my mental disorders from going haywire due to the chaotic, unpredictable ups and downs of the movie business.

Filmmakers, in particular, are mostly afraid to speak out about how intense and debilitating the process of making films can be, for fear that nobody will work with us again, and for fear that we’ll seem weak and overly emotional. In hopes that my experience can help other filmmakers, and anyone in a creative field or anyone in show business, I humbly submit these guidelines to help you get through the madness of making a film (or anything, really) without going mad yourself.

— Joshua Sanchez

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Guide

You are not your success or your failure

Pinning your emotional wellbeing on whether your film gets made, gets into a good film festival, gets distributed, makes money, etc, is a surefire way to fall into the traps of depression and anxiety. Even if your film is successful, there are additional stressors that come with that, so it’s important to keep in mind that through everything, you and your wellbeing are more important than what you’re making, always.

Making a film will never solve your life’s problems. It will never make what is broken fixed. It will never make you whole. You have to do that for yourself.

Remember that what you are doing is one of the most difficult artistic pursuits. Before you roll your first take, take this phrase and make it one of your mantras: I am not my success or my failure.

Focusing on the present instead of the past or the future is a good way to keep perspective on what is truly important in life when you’re making a film. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, because you want your film to succeed.

Remember that films succeed because they tell great stories. Period.

I like to think of production as a magical bubble. If everything goes right, I should feel protected from worry, and be able to focus on making what is in my head a reality. It’s a spiritual experience in and of itself to create these alternate realities for the screen. Make sure you’re able to appreciate the experience while it is happening, instead of focusing on what could or might happen later. That worry is for another day.

When you need to stop, stop

“Never quit.” This is a cardinal rule in filmmaking, like sports. But it’s not always true—at least in the short term.

It’s important to be able to step out of the bubble of your film whenever you need to and take stock of what you’re trying to accomplish, how far you’ve come, and what is truly important to you in life. This goes for the development, production, post-production, and release of your film.

If you’re directing a film, you’ll often find yourself at the helm of a circus of people all vying for your attention, your guidance, your approval, your eyes, your ears, and your wallet. The circus can be overwhelming even for the most seasoned studio directors. In this type of situation, it’s important to realize that you have the power to say stop and walk away when you need to. Despite whatever sense of urgency is being pushed onto you, know that the film might be better off if you’re able to clear your head for a moment and think about the best solution instead of just reacting to the chaos.

On set, I always have a quiet spot mapped out for myself where I can go when I need to breathe and take stock. On independent film sets, this quiet spot will be hard to come by and you might have to fight to get it. But it will be worth it when the time comes and you need to be alone with your thoughts for a few minutes. You’ve come this far and earned the right to stop, so take advantage of it.

Identify your mentors and keep them close

If you have the chance to direct a film, you likely have mentors who have nurtured and shepherded your talent and process. If you can, have them close by—either physically or virtually—as much as you can.

My biggest artistic mentor, the visual artist, photographer, and filmmaker Allen Frame, was actually on set with me when I made Four. His presence was very much an anchor that kept me not only connected to the material I was working with but also gave me an emotional and psychological grounding in the middle of a chaotic movie set.

Not every mentor will be able to be this hands-on in your process. But keeping them close will help you feel better about what you’re making, and more confident in your process. A quick check-in phone call each day can achieve this, as can a FaceTime/Skype session to go over the day’s work.

In addition to nurturing our talents, mentors also teach us how to behave and function as artists. In all likelihood, they’ve already gone through everything that you’re going through, and can lend wisdom and guidance when things get stressful.

Always pay yourself

One big regret I have about Four is that I didn’t insist on getting paid. Instead, I agreed to have my fee for directing the film deferred so that the money could be put into other parts of the production. There were production assistants that made more on Four than I’ll ever see.

There are different schools of thought on this. Some producers say it’s a good idea to use every resource you have to get the movie made. Likely my movie would never have been made without salary deferrals. Sure, my fee was put to good use by going back into the movie, but let’s examine the downside.

In a regular job, you expect to get paid for the skilled work you provide. Directing a film is hard work—perhaps some of the hardest work you’ll ever experience. On a basic level, not paying yourself is setting yourself up within the business structure of your film as a person who is not worth paying.

Unless you’re rich, deferring your salary is deferring money that you may need to use to stay grounded and financially stable in this world. Having the resources to support your life is not only good for you as an individual, but it’s also good for the film. Paying filmmakers helps maintain their loyalty to the project. It keeps the filmmaker able to provide for themselves, able to handle any unforeseen crises, and able to spend the extended amount of time off that it takes to make and promote a quality film.

It’s also a good idea to make a realistic budget of your personal finances a year or two into the future from the time you start working on the film. Try to stick to this budget as much as possible. Ask yourself the hard questions that your budget will likely illuminate. Can you realistically afford to make the film with the resources that you have? What income will you accrue, if any, over the lifecycle of your film?

Don’t take on any unnecessary debt

Filmmaking is littered with mythology centered around the devil-may-care debtor. “Don’t think—just push through.” I knew a guy in film school who invested his student loan money in the stock market in some coked-up scheme to earn interest off his loan to fund his first feature film. In the end, he lost all the money and had to borrow more to make up the difference.

Most filmmakers want the big reward, so they’ll take a big risk to get it. Behavior like this is celebrated in the film business because so many films would never get made if someone wasn’t willing to take the risk. But most films do not achieve the big reward, so often filmmakers are left dealing with the fallout of financial, emotional, or artistic risk at the end of the project, with nobody else to help them deal with it.

A classic example of this is maxing out your credit cards to fund a movie. Many great films have been funded this way, and countless not-so-great ones. Remember that someone will have to pay off that debt at the end of the production, and it might be you.

Being severely in debt can take a huge toll on one’s mental health. In a 2018 study, the Journal of Consumer Research found a connection between the burden of consumer debt and overall mental health.

Being clear about the financial risks you are taking eliminates some of the emotional tolls later on in the project. Is the risk you’re being asked to take for the good of the film only, and not in your best interest? Will you regret taking on any unnecessary monetary risk that you’re not prepared to handle? Is there a way to share any financial, emotional, or artistic risk with your collaborators? Are there any untapped financial sources that can lessen the financial burden you carry?

If you’re aware of exactly just how much you are taking on, you’ll have less of a chance of experiencing any hiccups in your mental health after the film is over.

If it feels wrong, don’t do it

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form through and through. Every step of the process requires some sort of consensus, whether it’s with a producer, gaffer, DP, or actor. But if you’re directing a film, keep in mind that you’re likely the deciding voice.

Everyone wants to get your approval, and often they may put an unfair amount of pressure on you to do what they want, when they want it. But it’s your name on the final product, and you’re the person that everyone will point to as the reason for its success or failure.

In times when you need to make a tough decision, remember to trust the inner instinct that tells you when a situation is right or wrong. Once in a casting session, I wanted to spend some extra time with an actor who was less experienced and less of a name than some of the others I was seeing. This was seen as a waste of time by the casting director and producer, who were openly dismissive of the actor and angry with me that I took time away from those seen as more viable to the film.

Afterward, I was confronted by the producer and I had to explain that I’d seen something in this actor that was special, and wanted to see if I could get more out of him. If I was unable to take that opportunity when I needed to, then why was I directing the film?

Had I acquiesced to their judgment, I would have been giving up my power as a director. This felt wrong to me in the moment, and even though I was treated with contempt for taking that time to speak to this actor, afterward, I’d learned more about the actor that I was looking for and this made it easier for me to make a good casting choice when the time came.

Breathe. Repeat.

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned in life is how to meditate. I only wish I’d learned it sooner. It would have helped me immensely during the making of Four.

Science has proven the immense benefits of mindfulness meditation time and time again. In filmmaking, especially on a set, concentration training will help you keep a laser-like focus on the film you’re trying to make. Meditation makes it so much easier to get into the artistic zone and stay there for as long as you need to. Meditation is a way to hold yourself emotionally whenever you need to.

The practice also illuminates how temporary everything in life is. On a film set, every decision or crisis can seem like the end of the world. But the time you spend in production is only a fleeting moment. Remembering this can calm you down and will likely improve the quality of work you’re doing on set.

When focusing on the present, you’ll be able to truly feel and experience exactly what is happening at any given moment. This focus helps manage stress and anxiety and gives you a grounding in life that makes it less likely for you to be emotionally shaken in difficult situations.

And there will be many, many difficult situations when you’re directing a movie.

Remember why you got into it

This was my idea of success when I was first starting out: To tell a story that emotionally connected with an audience and made them re-evaluate their own place in the world.

When I’m feeling lost in the fray of swirling influences and power plays that it takes to make a movie, I find it helpful to go back and remember the good old days. Ask yourself, what made you fall in love with movies in the first place?

For me, this vision is being in college in Austin in the mid-1990s and attending an all-day John Cassavetes marathon. I remember the actor Seymour Cassel introducing the film Faces to the audience before I saw it for the first time. The film was a revelation to me. Never before had I felt the power of the cinema to reflect life back to me with such honesty and fearless exploration.

Faces was a huge influence on Four for many reasons. When I found myself in doubt about the future of my film, I focused on what the potential was—to tell a provocative, simple story about real people. Because of Faces, I knew that this was possible.

Watch the drink

The film industry is filled to the brim with alcohol. During any film festival, free drinks are everywhere. It’s easier to get drunk than fed at most festival parties. And yet we do not question what this easy and encouraged access to alcohol does to the mental health of our filmmakers.

Alcohol can exacerbate depression and vice versa. I myself drink, albeit moderately and usually socially, so I especially have to watch out for how alcohol can creep into my life because of my job. At festivals, if I have a film that I’m promoting, I opt out of alcohol most of the time. This was a hard-learned lesson.

At the Los Angeles Film Festival premiere of Four, I had one too many at the opening night party and took a tumble down some steps, spraining my ankle.

I didn’t know if I’d be able to walk at my premiere, which terrified me. Thankfully my ankle had healed enough by the time the film screened, but it was a close call.

Remember, it’s okay to not drink at industry gatherings. In fact, being clear and sober may help you foster more fruitful relationships with your colleagues and give you a better sense of how to network in a smarter way.

It’s okay to not read your press

One of the easiest ways to annihilate your self-esteem is to read what is being written about you or your work online. This is especially hard to navigate considering that everyone on social media now has an opinion on every movie that comes out. If you’ve made a film, chances are you’ll have something said about you that is negative at some point or another.

Never feel obligated to read your press if you think it could damage your own self-worth. It’s more than okay to stay away from the internet or from social media to keep your own mental health intact.

I’ve found that if a review is good, or if someone of significance says something positive about me or my work, I’ll hear about it via friends and family.

Constantly needing the validation of your worth or your film’s worth can be emotionally taxing and contribute to the already volatile emotional roller coaster of making a film.

Keep your day job

“Don’t quit your day job” is classic, sage advice in show business and there is no shame in abiding by it. I myself have maintained a job at New York University for the last 10 years working as a design director and webmaster. This job has kept me afloat during my ongoing film pursuits and during my entire experience of making a feature film.

Thankfully, I’ve had a job that stuck by me and allowed me to take extended time off to pursue my artistic goals. Not every job will be this accommodating, but it never hurts to ask.

If you’re a loyal employee to a company or organization, check what their policy is for an unpaid leave of absence. If your skill set and work ethic are strong, they might find it worth keeping you around. Remember, people take time off for weddings, vacations, funerals, and births. It’s okay to ask for time off to make a project you feel passionately about.

A big downside of maintaining a full-time job while making a feature film is burnout. You’ll likely be pushing yourself to exhaustion, which does not bode well for your stress levels in general. Make sure to have a plan in place to maintain a healthy lifestyle if you find yourself working two demanding jobs.

In summary…

With a little planning and hard work, you can make a successful film without sacrificing your mental health. Take the initiative to prepare yourself for any mental, emotional, or financial challenges that may come your way. Make sure you give yourself room to slow down and reflect on the choices that you’re making. Define what you consider to be “success” early in the process and do not measure yourself against anyone else’s definition.

If you suffer from mental illness, but have a great idea for a film and find the idea of making one insurmountable, don’t give up. It’s important for the world to have a diverse representation of stories, by diverse voices. It may be more difficult for you to get a film made, but I’m proof that you can tell a compelling story with incredible actors that has an audience—and survive to tell the tale.

About the Author

Joshua Sanchez

Filmmaker

Joshua Sanchez’s debut feature film Four won the Best Performance Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Best Feature Film Award at the Urbanworld Film Festival, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. He was awarded the 2016-2017 Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts Artists’ Fellowship in Playwriting/Screenwriting. He currently serves as the Director of Design and Digital Services at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.