This is the second part in an interview series I’m doing asking the same five questions of creative professionals. The goal is hopefully to give young writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians a more realistic view of what success (or ‘breaking in’) looks like in each of these industries.
Kevin Miller is a screenwriter and filmmaker from Abbotsford, BC. His many credits include the feature films No Saints for Sinners and After… as well as the documentaries spOILed and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Kevin’s latest film is also his directorial debut, a feature-length documentary called Hellbound?, which takes on the traditional doctrine of hell. He also teaches screenwriting at film schools and conferences around the world. I’m privileged to call such a smart and talented guy my friend. Even if he is Canadian.
At what point did you consider yourself a success?
I still haven’t reached that point, to be honest. I saw an interview with Conan O’Brien the other night where he admitted that even after nearly two decades on TV, he still worries it’s all going to end 30 minutes from now. I can certainly identify with that. I think every creative person’s deepest fear is that one day they will be revealed as a fraud.
Even though I’ve worked on a number of films, some of which have been well received and earned millions of dollars, I always feel like I have to put a footnote beneath each one explaining the parts that make me cringe.
On another level, with my current film, Hellbound?, I feel a huge step closer to feeling a bit more secure about my abilities. That’s because on this film, I have a much fuller sense of authorship than on any other. Typically, I’ve been a screenwriter, co-writer and/or associate producer. On this film, I raised the money, put the team together, wrote, directed and assisted in the editing of the film. And now I am helping to manage marketing and distribution as well. So while it’s far too early to tell if this film is a success, it is a tremendously satisfying creative experience. And the fact that our film has already earned the approval of so many of my friends and mentors helps me sleep a little better at night.
How long did it take you to get there?
Not sure if this question is relevant in light of my previous response. I’ll let you know when/if it happens. However, I can say there have been brief moments going all the way back to the first line of poetry I wrote in grade 5 where I’ve had a flash of insight that says, “Hey, I think I might be onto something here.”
There’s always this gap between what you envision and what you finally create in the end. I can say I think that gap is closing steadily. But I think it’ll always be there.
Who do you look at in the movie industry as someone you respect, that is “doing it right?”
I’m a big fan of two types of filmmakers. The first are writer-directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers and Darren Aronofsky who manage to retain their artistic integrity while employing the entire myth-making machinery of Hollywood to their advantage. These guys consistently produce beautiful, insightful and important films. I’m truly in awe of their work.
The other type of filmmaker I admire is exemplified by people like George Lucas and James Cameron. These guys aren’t content to simply make movies. They see so far beyond the curve that before they can even make their movies, they have to change the way movie-making is done. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of every film they’ve created. But I have a deep appreciation for their commitment to innovation and excellence. It’s also humbling to be reminded constantly of how small my mind is in comparison.
What’s the biggest surprise for how you expected life to be at your level vs. how it actually is?
The money! (Or lack thereof.) I think everyone enters this business thinking/hoping that one day they’ll win the lottery, so to speak. Not true. At least not in my case. I can’t complain–I live in a relatively new house on the edge of town, I’m able to treat my kids to nice presents at Christmas and so on. But I’ve been a freelancer for 12 years, and that doesn’t always equate to financial security. We have had many highs and lows over the years.
People also expect this line of work to be somewhat glamorous. I know I certainly did. However, you quickly learn that the glamorous moments–if they even happen–are fleeting at best. Most of the time I’m in the field, on a plane or in my office at home. I jokingly tell people that making movies is about long hours of self-torture and self-doubt punctuated by brief moments of elation. So celebrate those moments when you can.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to break in to screenwriting or filmmaking?
1. There is no substitute for learning your craft. A few lucky people can fake it for a while. But if you want to have a long, fruitful career in this industry, you need to work, work, work. Educate yourself. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a filmmaker, make films. I’ve learned more about making spoof movie trailers with my kids than I have on actual film sets.
2. You’re only as good as your network. Like any business, film making is based primarily on relationships. I’ve gotten most of my jobs through connections from previous projects. What you know–and are able to do–is important. But who you know is vital. The thing I would warn against is using networking as a form of procrastination. I know people who feel like they’re filmmakers or screenwriters just because they’re able to score meetings or because they’ve met someone famous. The only thing that makes you a screenwriter or a filmmaker is the credit on the screen.