my first documentary

The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done: 8 Things I Learned From My First Documentary

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Two years ago I asked my boss to go out to lunch with me. I was about to quit my job. I was nervous, scared I would say the wrong thing and she would get mad and throw queso at me. I meekly told her that I planned to leave position after my wedding to travel across the country. It was hard to quit. It sucked feeling like I let her and the company down.

I thought that was going to be the most difficult part of our journey. Everyone says that “just starting” is the most difficult part. The internet and books are filled with stuff that says “Once you take the leap, everything becomes easier” and “The first step is the hardest one to take”.

But I can tell you from experience that quitting a job I disliked to travel the country and transition my career was not the hardest part. Telling my parents and new in-laws that I was leaving a steady paying job for the unknown wasn’t the hardest part either.

The hardest thing I’ve ever done came later. It came after the idea to work 50 different hourly jobs. It came when we decided turn the adventure into a documentary. I had this desire to go out and make a documentary. I’m not even sure if it was exclusive to documentaries…I just wanted to do film stuff because it looked cool. But I didn’t go to college for film and I hadn’t spent time learning about it on my own. Yet, there I was, a few weeks after quitting my sales job, committing to travel across the country and film a documentary about work.

It felt heavy, Marty McFly heavy.

In theory, I should just be able to point the camera at something and magic would happen. After all, I’ve watched plenty of movies in my lifetime. But the magic evaded me. As I sat down to watch footage from our jobs, it was painful. The camera was jerky. The questions I asked during interviews were bad. All the clean looking videos I had seen from film makers and other creatives made it look so easy. I was terrible.

And to be clear, I was in front of the camera most of the time. Alyssa was running the camera (this was all new to her too). But every now and then I would take the camera to walk around and get b roll shots, those are the shots I’m referring to.

Plus, on top of not being able to shoot high quality video, I still had to show up at each one of these new jobs and try to look people in the eye and tell them we were making a documentary. I felt like a complete fake. I knew we were shooting a documentary. But I wasn’t a film maker. I didn’t feel like one at least. I knew nothing about lighting, audio, or the things a real producer would know about film. I was faking it, knowing that eventually everyone would figure out how horrible I was. It kept me up at night, literally.

But then time passed and we learned a little more about video. We upgraded our camera from a basic Panasonic Camcorder to a Canon 7D. Our footage slowly improved, but a lot of the shots were still over exposed and raw. I still didn’t feel like a film maker or documentarian, or whatever the heck people like us are called. I just felt like a guy traveling around the country working hourly jobs and recording it, occasionally asking people questions about their lives.

Then something unexpected happened. Thirty states into our trip, CNN found out about our story on Twitter. When we arrived in New York in the coming weeks they wanted to do a sit down interview with us. Cool.

We arrived in New York and were not only interviewed by CNN, but FOX and Friends Morning Show, Huffington Post Live, and then our story spread to other outlets literally across the globe. People magazine published a story on us, CBS prime time news, and other places. And I tell you this not to brag, but to tell you that this escalated the pressure in my mind of having to make something great.

Every time I gave one of those interview in the past year and had to tell people my title of film maker, I struggled. Most of the time when they asked me my title, I’d say something goofy like “Hourly Job Explorer.” Nobody really understands that title, and so they can’t really question the authenticity of it.

After I went on national and international TV and told people I was making a documentary about hourly work across the the US, I cringed in fear that I would have to make something half-way decent–knowing I really wasn’t that good.

I started putting even more pressure on myself to show up and be great… at something I’d literally just started doing five months earlier. It made me want to freeze up. It made me want to hide under a rock at times. “I’m not a film maker,” the voice in the back of my head kept saying.

A couple months ago I was having breakfast with a friend of mine who I would say actually is a film maker. His name is Drew. I told him about my struggle. He asked me about my editing and if we were almost done with the documentary. I told him no. He asked how far along we were. I kind of dodged his question in a round about way and told him about my internal struggle with this whole film making thing and how I didn’t feel cut out for it.

He said that when people ask him what he does for a living, he doesn’t give them a title. Instead, he tells them what he is working on at the time. He says that since he is writing a book right now, he tells people he’s currently writing a book. He says you can’t lie about your occupation if you’re actually waking up everyday and working on that specific thing. He said that calling myself a film maker was only a lie if I wasn’t waking up everyday and working on a part of my film– writing, editing, story boarding, etc.

I liked that.

So now if you ask me, “Heath, what do you do for work?” I’ll respond by telling you that I’m currently working on editing my documentary called Hourly America. It’s a documentary about my journey in work. A story that features mine and my wife’s 13-month journey across America in an RV as I worked hourly jobs and interviewed people about what they did for work.

This is what Stephen Pressfield, who wrote the War of Art, said about overcoming that fear of considering yourself an artist.

“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

This process of believing in myself as a filmmaker is one of the hardest obstacles I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure if I have a clear cut solution for how to get over this fear of “calling oneself an artist,” but I have learned a lot during this time of making my first documentary.

1. Your first version of anything is going to suck.

The first few videos I did were terrible and I cringe when I watch them. It’s important to shoot those videos anyway. It’s the only way to shooting videos that suck less. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to be bad at things. As a kid we would draw because it was fun. As an adult, we feel like if we try something and it doesn’t “monetize” in 6 months or less we should quit. In my eyes, this has been the biggest poison I’ve had to shake.

2. Almost every artist feels insecure.

We all just act like we’re not.

3. It’s easier to create and mess up when nobody is watching.

Once we started having more media articles go public, I felt more pressure to do something great… which in turn made me do nothing out of fear of screwing up. Once people are watching it becomes harder to create and live up to the false expectations. The only way around this is to create anyway. Try to mess up on a smaller scale so you put less pressure on yourself.

4. Comparing yourself to more experienced people is the greatest joy sucker in the whole world.

Just don’t.

5. You don’t need to go to school for making film to make film.

Youtube. Vimeo. Forums. All the information is out there, for free.

6. You do need film mentors to become decent at film.

Meeting other film makers who are a million times better than me has made all the difference. I ask them questions about how to do technical stuff and they give solid advice back. I tell them I feel like a phony, and they say they do too. Even people further along than you make it up as they go.

7. Quit thinking about the potential outcome.

In all likelihood, our documentary won’t make a dime. I know that. I acknowledge that. But it’s about creating something that could make a positive impact in the world. For me, it’s about finishing what I started.

8. Acknowledge that your identity is much more than what you’re creating.

For so much of the past year and a half my identity has been tied to Hourly America. But I’m not Hourly America, I’m Heath. Hourly America is just something I created.

I’m still struggling with this idea of calling myself a film maker. Maybe once we finish our documentary I will feel more qualified to claim that title, or maybe I’ll always struggle with it. Either way, today I’m going to stick with Drew’s advice and just tell you what I did today.

I worked on my first-ever documentary. Below is proof of that. We just released our first trailer for Hourly America. We also launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $20,000 to help fund the rest of our film. If you like the trailer (or you want a really cool RV themed t-shirt) then we would love your support. You can view our Indiegogo campaign here.

4 Responses

  • I can imagine the pressure must have been unbearable at times, especially during those interviews. Glad you stuck through it and finished out the trip. There’s nothing better than a raw documentary that asks an interesting question and evokes thought for weeks if not years to come. Super excited for this to come out!

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