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The Suck Line

by Wesley Boyd Ellenwood

A few days before we started filming No Blood Of Mine I had a short poignant, conversation with a member of the team.  They asked, “So what kind of film are you planning to make?”  There was a tone in their voice that suggested concern.  I ascertained they were probing me to learn if I, a first-time feature director, knew what I was doing or was just making it up as I went along praying the footage would some how cut together into a coherent manner. 

To be fair, the question of my directorial skill set was a valid one.  Though I’d made dozens of short films this was my first feature and shouldering the responsibility of guiding 50+ cast and crew members is such a unique undertaking that unless and until you have taken on such a challenge, the jury is out on whether or not you have the where-with-all to assemble it.  It is binary.  As a director of a feature either you know what you’re doing, or you don’t.  I sensed this team member’s opinion of me was of the latter.

I replied, “My plan is to tell a good story and in the end, hope it doesn’t suck.”  The team-member furrowed their brow and replied, “Don’t you want to make the best film you can make?”  I paused and decided to answer simply, “Well, of course.”  Their question answered but not in the manner they had expected, they walked away. 

During the subsequent three weeks of filming this team-member, on occasion, asked me again to learn of my plan.  Months later I heard from others, this person never acknowledged my talent and used my utterance of  “hope it doesn’t suck” as corroborating evidence to claim I didn’t know what I was doing.

Now it may be a Midwestern thing but I have heard and used “… hope it doesn’t suck” or its equivalence, since walking the halls of my high school.  My definition of ‘to suck’ would be as follows: to be substandard, lacking in quality, undeserving of praise, or without merit.  There are two forms of this pejorative: the pessimistic and the optimistic.  The former used in a sentence reads like, “Bob, you suck.”  The latter used in a sentence reads a little differently, “Robert, you don’t suck.”  See?  Big difference.

In my opinion, either a film sucks or it doesn’t.  It too is binary.  It is easy to apply this philosophy to high profile Hollywood films.  For example, the film The Island by Michael Bay sucks and the film Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg doesn’t suck. 

Applying this critiquing tool to the entire spectrum of filmmaking one finds the task of choosing on which side of ‘the suck line’ a film falls, becomes ever more difficult the further down the stratum you descend. 

At the top there’s the ‘A List Picture’ category.  Here with the studio-backed films the line is easily drawn.  Then with a step down you arrive at the ‘B Picture’.  Applying the line for these quirky low-budget studio films can either be a sure thing or a gamble.  And with one giant leap you arrive at the relatively new ‘Backyard Indie’ classification.  Here the line is totally blurry because these ‘art house films’ are made outside of the studio system and some are literally, for artistic reasons, filmed blurry.  The last and newest category I label the ‘Backwoods Indie’ and these films have multiplied like weeds due to the advent of affordable HD cameras.   Wading through these ‘no budget films’ to determine what sucks and what doesn’t takes an experienced eye and often a pair of waterproof boots. 

As a footnote I’ll add, the only way to raise Bay’s island adventure out of its ‘suckiness’ would be for one of Steven’s dinosaurs to wash ashore Michael’s mistake and devour everyone.  Ewan McGregor appearing as both a character and himself?  OMG!  Proof positive The Island sucks!  Eat them all T Rex!  Eat them all!

For a film to ‘not suck’, in my opinion, requires three things; it needs a story with logic, like if a named character dies then he or she cannot come back to life, unless they are a zombie.  A sympathetic hero, like a Laura Dern or a Scarlett Johansson, unless they are portraying a zombie and then who really cares how many times these actors die ‘cause I’d watch anything either of them are in.  And a satisfying climax, like when the main character achieves their goal, unless they are in a Michael Bay movie because by the climax most of the audience has given up trying to follow the plot and are just enjoying the explosions.

Embracing the accepted Hollywood theorem that the director is the author of the film, it then follows that the handling of the logic, hero, and climax of the film is the director’s responsibility.   And in our box-office conscious culture, it is also the director who shoulders the ever-rising expectation of success as the budget also rises. 

This makes sense.  If your step-uncle is investing ten million dollars in a psychological thriller to be shot in the suburbs of Milwaukee, then he’ll probably hire a seasoned director with a notable film or two to their credit.  If you and your friends have scraped together a few bucks to spend a weekend making a zombie apocalyptic extravaganza in the empty space of your parent’s garage, you’ll probably do what usually happens in cases like this; whoever brings the best camera to the set gets to direct.

However, no matter what size the budget or the experience of the cast and crew or the amount of time allotted to make it, it is this writer’s belief that any director attempting to make a feature film is actively striving to make a film that does not suck.

But here’s the catch.  If the director has a modicum of self-awareness and more importantly, a minimum of resources, then they are quite probably aware that failure is stalking them.  And despite all their best managerial and artistic skills, and despite all their efforts to push, pull, write, design, organize, shoot, direct, and edit their film so as to raise it from ‘below the suck line’ to ‘above the suck line’, their film may be the stuff that boots step in.   

From the very inception of my film I felt failure stalking me.  And when my curious team member asked what kind of film I planned to make, I didn’t want to enter into a long explanation like the one I’ve assembled here.  This then was my dilemma and the reason why I chose to answer them as I did.

To the uninitiated, this suck or not suck designation usually reveals itself to the director late at night in a room softly lit by glowing computer monitors and littered with empty takeout cartons, discarded beverage containers and well past the last opportunity for the film to be fixed.  Beer me.

Another reason why I answered as I did was I didn’t want to say something snarky like, “Well, I’m making this film with limited resources and oh by the way, that includes you.”  That would be just mean. 

And avoiding meanness is crucial.  A movie set is like an airplane aloft.  Everyone needs to keep their cool until the end of the ride.  And until then you’re stuck with everyone onboard working, eating, and often living for weeks in very tight quarters.  And just like on a plane, if angry heated words start to fly on a set, it usually leads to a precipitous descent, one that is rarely followed by an ascent back up to a safe altitude.  If someone does cause a disruption, it’s wise to jettison that person as quickly as possible.  Put a parachute in their hands and push them out the door. 

So because I didn’t want the curious crew member to lose their cool, I utilized the phrase “… hope it doesn’t suck”.  They may not have found reassurance in my directorial skills, but with that answer at least they didn’t learn I questioned their skills just as much as they were questioning mine.  My motivation here was for the film’s completion.

Some directors have other motivations behind their films like glory, experience, or money.  I don’t know about the first two but the last one provides an easy application of ‘the suck line’.  If your film makes a profit, then it doesn’t suck.  While the first two provide press clippings, festival laurels, invitations to parties, or speaking engagements, in my opinion the last provides the best application of ‘the suck line’ along with that long tearful walk all the way to the bank.  Tissue please.

So here’s where I need to swallow some crow.  Even though my opinion would designate The Island as below the suck line, by virtue of my crafted, researched, and peer reviewed (at a local bar) critiquing tool (complete with definitions and parameters of analysis), it then should be noted here that the aforementioned Michael Bay film, (sigh) does not suck. 

I feel dirty.

You can look it up.  (Wikipedia)  The Island cost $126m to make and earned $162m at the US box office.

This revelation leads me back to the top of page one.  In the final analysis, there are only two judges who determine whether a film sucks or it doesn’t, the film’s director and the film’s audience.  The first starts with a vision and completes the film as best they can.  And the second judges the film by virtue of their applause, awards, or pocketbook.  As for the first two motivations, press clippings and festival wins, they don’t pay the bills.  Simple.

So like a plane aloft, if you’ve signed onto a film and you’re not the director, wait until the film is done to voice whether or not it sucks. 

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