Monday, March 11, 2019

Owning a “label” as a filmmaker

This image is NOT of Brian Higgins
but most Utah Filmmakers who see it
may say, “Oh, yeah, I know Brian.”
When I think of Utah’s film community, there are only a handful of people that might be worthy of a label like “Icon.” One of these local film icons is Brian Higgins. Probably best known for producing Salt Lake City’s annual 48 Hour Film Project, Brian is also the mind behind the Filmulate Genre Festivals that take place throughout the year.
Another endeavor that Brian is committed to is his non profit organization, Create Reel Change, founded to educate and promote understanding and acceptance of mental health issues through creativity, so it came as no surprise when Brian decided to lend his support to the Labeled Festival for Mental Health and the efforts of its parent organization, Alliance House in Salt Lake City.
“Labeled Fest” starts at noon on May 11, 2019, at Library Square. Film submissions will continue to be accepted until March 20, 2019.

The “label” that this festival refers to is that which tends to be assigned to those who are proactive about seeking treatment for mental illness—and don’t hide it. While “labels” associated with various mental health diagnoses are often used pejoratively, the aim of the Labeled Festival is to help “take it back” with an eye toward removing any perceived stigma.

While my own efforts to maintain my mental health have never been a secret, I do try to be mindful when it comes to recognizing when it is or isn’t appropriate for discussion—especially within a professional setting. Considering the attention that Labeled Fest and Create Reel Change bring to the issue within the context of filmmaking, I feel encouraged to share some of my personal experiences and how they’ve affected me as a filmmaker.

I know and have worked with a number of people in the local film industry who function with various mental health diagnoses from clinical depression to bipolar disorder, general anxiety and other mental illnesses. They all do their best to manage their mental health while being productive, contributing their time and talent to the local industry, and growing as artists.

I’ll spare you a comprehensive mental health self-evaluation and limit my sharing to what can be an ancillary symptom to many mental illnesses as well as a singular diagnosis. It’s also something the most people have experienced at one time or another, especially those of us in creative fields.


To give you an idea of how debilitating anxiety can be, when I first started writing this essay—just three paragraphs in—I started feeling really anxious and had to step away from it. What I thought would just be a short break to administer some self-care turned into a day of worry that not only affected my ability to write but also impeded progress on a film project with a looming deadline.

It was about 24 hours before I was able to compose myself enough to finish writing it and I’ve been pretty much white-knuckling it ever since.

These are feelings that I know just about every actor experiences, regardless of whether they’re auditioning for a community theater production just for the love of it or if they’re an award-winning industry veteran preparing for a role written specifically for them in a big-budget feature film or series.

Anxiety is also experienced by creatives behind the camera, especially in high pressure positions like writers, producers and directors but, guess what, it doesn’t matter what job you might have on a project, you could be a cinematographer or a production assistant and still become virtually paralyzed by an unexpected panic attack.

Utah Film Commission
In my work as the Administrator for the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, I find myself enduring some intense anxiety even when I’m just working at home behind my computer (I’ll refer you to my experience writing this essay as described above). The nature of an “association” strongly suggests that I need to associate myself with others in the industry which means making an effort to go to local film-related events—and occasionally organizing them. This triggers my anxiety to an intense degree, so much so that I’ve had to cancel plans to participate in events at the last minute; most recently, Film Day on the Hill, which took place not long after I had been in contact with the Utah Film Commission and the Motion Picture Association of Utah. I certainly had a professional imperative to be there as a filmmaker and I wanted very much to show my support—and by extension that of the UFA™—by connecting with other industry professionals in person but my Generalized anxiety disorder had other plans for my physical person.

One thing that I’ve learned though is that my colleagues in the film industry are much more understanding of these challenges when I’m honest about them. To share with you another example, in December of 2018, I had a meeting with the leadership of another film-related non profit organization. When I was asked to briefly describe the mission of Utah Filmmakers™, I started to speak and then began to stutter—quite a bit. I paused for a moment, remembering that sometimes an anxiety attack can present itself as stuttering and stumbling over one’s words. I smiled, looked to my colleagues and said, “I apologize. I’m feeling a bit of anxiety.”

They all smiled back at me, expressed their understanding and patiently allowed me a moment to collect myself and continue. I can’t help but wonder how that would have gone over in a different industry where creativity isn’t as integral to the work that’s done. Speaking with one of these colleagues again on the phone, they mentioned to me experiencing “nervous energy” in anticipation of an upcoming event and I was glad to be able to express my empathy. I wondered if we were both reminded of my anxiety-induced stammering.

Utah Filmmakers Meet & Greet
When I am able to make it to film industry and community networking events, it takes a great deal of effort on my part not to isolate myself with familiar faces and I’m not always successful. Many people who are not accustomed to speaking or performing in front of an audience will find what I'm about to say incredibly ironic but I find it much easier to address a large group of people than to make small talk and meet them one-on-one. I enthusiastically jump at the chance to do so at events like Sue Rowe’s Utah Filmmakers Meet & Greets. Before I thank the host for the opportunity to speak and ask everyone to join the Facebook group if they haven’t already done so, I start off by saying something to the effect of, “I’ve got to run soon but before I do…”

I imagine that this little caveat might make it appear to others that I must be a very busy man with a number of projects on my plate, places to go and important people to see. If I haven’t been given the chance to speak to the room, I try to seek out the organizer and say, “I’ve got to run but before I do, I want to thank you…” and they may very well infer the same thing.

While I usually do have a number of projects on my plate, occasionally go places and get to meet important people once in a while, I have a confession to make:

“I’ve got to run,” more often than not, is just my way of saying that my anxiety is really elevated and I need to go home to deal with the panic attack that I knew all along would be coming.

In the end, I would rather pay that price to attend an event for the sake of the art that I love and the community that I adore than regret not having gone at all. It’s also one of the reasons that I started the Utah Filmmakers™ Community Liaison Program. It is a genuine effort to raise awareness of the organization but it’s also to make up for those times when I can’t be somewhere even when I want to be, more than anything.

Joe Puente
Utah Filmmakers™ Association

Addendum (16 March 2019):

I went to a short film screening last night… There were a lot of people there. It was pretty awesome. I said hi to one of the proprietors of the venue, took some photos and shared them online, dropped off some business cards and went home before the screenings actually started simply because I was feeling anxious.

I’m still glad that I made it out there though. It looked like everyone was having a great time and the night was definitely a success for those who planned it—and my ducking out early probably didn’t even register with anyone and that’s okay.

As I’ve said before, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time—some of us are affected by it more than others—and it’s important to remember that it’s not anyone’s fault. Panic attacks—mild, moderate and severe—just happen, affecting different people for different reasons. Sometimes, there are circumstances that can predictably elevate someone’s anxiety. Sometimes anxiety shows up when you least expect it. No matter when or where it happens, no one can take responsibility for someone else’s anxiety any more than they can for the fact that someone’s pupils will dilate when it gets dark.

This experience also reminded me of times that I’ve experienced anxiety on set and have witnessed others experiencing it. One of the ways that anxiety manifests itself is through irritability. Something to consider the next time a person might appear to be acting “difficult” in a high pressure situation. That’s not to say that those of us who struggle with anxiety should just get a pass for anything they might say or do when our anxiety is elevated. Those of us who have come to be aware of these challenges, are able to recognize their feelings of anxiety, and identify what may be causing them, have a responsibility to learn how to manage those feelings—principally for their own benefit but also when they are working, especially in a collaborative environment such as a film set.

I have been in situations where I needed to bring what I was experiencing to the attention of a crew member—usually a 1st or 2nd AD. By being honest about it, the production had the information that it needed to maintain its momentum. It’s better to be aware and prepared to be flexible with the order of scheduled events than for something to unexpectedly halt production—all due to a lack of communication rooted in fear of embarrassment. More often than not, just knowing that my crew was aware and understanding of what I was dealing with was enough to help me focus on the task at hand.

I’m sure that most people with on-set experience can remember a time when off-camera drama affected the crew’s ability to capture the drama that was scripted. If we’re being completely honest, it was usually an actor. When something like that is witnessed on a film set, it’s considered unprofessional behavior regardless of any underlying cause. Film and television production is an intense, high-pressure work environment and one of the responsibilities that everyone has on set is to manage their stress in a professional manner. Acknowledging a potential problem is professional, allowing a potential problem to turn into an actual problem is not.

I try my best to maintain my professionalism on set and—just like everyone else on the planet—I’m not always successful. But when I see someone just abandon all responsibility in service to their own ego, potentially sending the whole production off the rails, there’s part of me that wants to say, “Pull yourself together! You think the rest of us aren’t feeling the same pressure you are? Get back to work! You don’t see me losing it! I power through and save the panic attack, tears and IBS symptoms for when I get home!…That’s because I’m a professional.”

Utah Filmmaker(s)™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-0190 , 11025542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.