2021. Late fall (which means snow in Northern Michigan). A nearby church starts a homeschool co-op.

Being practically the only homeschoolers at our own church, we jumped at the opportunity to improve our social skills (which, per stereotype, have always indeed been lacking).

Not only did our mom put me and my siblings in the co-op, me and two of my brothers were tasked with leading a filmmaking class with around twenty kids all twelve or under.

I’ll describe the experience with one word: CHAOS.

But then again, what can you expect from little kids? Especially kids roped by their parents into a class they only held minimal interest in.

I set out with high expectations. This was going to be the best movie we’d ever made, and it was going to be a half-hour of pure fantasy movie magic.

It took us about a month and a half to finish the script, based on a plot suggested by one of the students. That was a DRAG, let me tell you. We kept the plot very simple (wise choice), but all the characters were completely unformed. We wrote dialogue, but there was no life in it: because we didn’t care about the story.

That’s important: you should care about your projects.

Dallas Jenkins was asked the difference between directing someone else’s film and directing your own. He said that “every project should be your project.”

When you sit down to write a book, or collaborate on a video game, or make a movie, you should want to make it as good as possible. If you’re leading it, it’s a good thing to want it to follow your vision.

But that’s where we get into trouble.

We want it to follow our vision, and assume that everyone else should too. Hopefully some of them will, but the reality of it is, they won’t. Everyone will have a slightly different angle on what the project should be.

And you can’t steamroll people with your vision.

And here’s where you can learn from my mistakes. Even though I disliked the script, I wanted the movie to be great. We were able to borrow a $1,000+ camera, and I gathered up all my old t-shirts and leather belts—ready to do this thing.

I’d teach these kids about acting. I’d direct like a champ. All the parents would be thrilled to watch the premiere.

Day One of filming.

I get my clapboard, get my clipboard (with a paper for taking notes), and herd the kids into the sanctuary. Everyone who comes in “just to watch” is promptly banished. I pray, and filming commences.

Pretty quickly we learn two things: 1. Kids can’t stay still, and 2. These kids have never acted before.

All my grand*, powerful, and comedic dialogue was awkwardly butchered before my eyes. And after every take, I’d glance around, and all the kids have moved.

A couple weeks into the shoot and we were worn out and frustrated.

Occasionally I’d try to push better performances out of the kids; almost always unsuccessful. And sometimes the kids we’d wanted to act wouldn’t show up. Or they got sick.

It was a dilemma. I wanted to make the best movie we could, but little kids were making it hard. We couldn’t get good acting. We couldn’t get good costumes. We couldn’t make the movie we wanted to.

I think at some point I had a realization. I can’t get these kids to do what I want. But I can try to have fun with them as we make this movie.

So what did we do? We lowered our expectations, and started having fun!

Why? Because removing the unrealistic expectations removes the stress. You can’t have real fun when you’re stressed. But you can have fun when you’re sitting down and just enjoying the people around you.

And that’s what happened! There were more jokes, and more spur-of-the-moment add-ins to the scenes.

This is the good thing we did that you can learn from.

Near the end of the film, the main characters storm the villain’s “castle,” slaying the guards in their path. One of the kids suggested that he play an old man in the castle entryway that would speak something moving to the hero. That was not in the script. We also were pretty sure it wouldn’t come across well. But we listened to his suggestion, and let him do it.

None of his lines were heard on camera, since the charging heroes were screaming too loud. However, I think we made the right choice in that we honored him and I think made him feel special.

Because he is. In a collaborative project, every person really is as important as every other. Yes, there should be one driver. Democracies don’t make movies.

BUT, just because I’m leading the project, doesn’t mean I can push the people around me away in the name of “product.”

We’re nerds. We work hard. And we usually want to work alone.

But the value of working with others is that you can create something more than you ever could alone. Take our co-op movie for example. I couldn’t have made it without the 20 kids who served as actors and production assistants. I couldn’t have done it without my brothers who wrote the script with me, and who did all the camerawork.

Even a book can’t be done alone. When you finally land an agent, they’re going to want you to make changes. When they land a publisher, it’ll go through more edits.

Okay, let’s sum this up. You’re going to work with people at some point, no matter how creative your dreams are. And though every project should be driven by your vision, you can’t bowl over people, even if that seems the best idea for the project.

So here’s what I want you to do. Watch our ridiculous little film (or at least some of it—it’s long). Laugh at the bad acting and worse costumes (probably half of them are my old shirts), but pay attention to the kids beneath the acting. Are they having fun here? Are they stressed over here? Is the acting better when they’re having fun?

High expectations lead to stress. Being genuine and kind with people can produce fun.


*  the dialogue was actually pretty impoverished, I just thought the delivery in my head was exponentially greater than the delivery by the actors

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