It’s sorta sad there was never a Part 2, but it’s still fun to hear the story from our mouths and see our joking behind the scenes.
And thus, all things that begin must end. What have we learned so far?
- Divisions of Labor – Have clearly defined ones so no one steps on anyone else’s toes.
- Hierarchy, a.k.a. Who’s in Charge Today? – Because divisions of labor mean nothing if expertise can be thrown away by the inexperienced. Power can be shared, but control must be yielded.
- Jokes should be written around the story, not the story around the joke.
- Morale = Poor Artist’s Payment
- The importance of a singular vision, even if it changes.
- Having clearly defined motives from the get-go.
- You can wear many hats on a project but you can not wear them at the same time or else your work will suffer.
Vital, sometimes infuriating and tiring (and redundant) but all of these points are important when working in a group, and yet they all take a serious back seat to this last lesson. It was where we as a group failed and the thing that really sent AirSWAT to an early grave: Communication. Constant communication.
Now imagine you’re me (lucky you, you only have to imagine. Do you know what it’s like here in my brain?)
You’ve spent the last two months writing and compiling a very large script, constantly rereading and editing to get rid of the fat. You have combed over every scene to create character lists, prop lists and locations. You have slaved hours over some small but important props. You have made a comprehensive list of every major airsoft manufacturer in the country, every large airsoft retailer in the west and every airsoft field in California, and have started to place blind calls into them to inquire about sponsorships. You’ve printed the script so many times that you’d be able to reconstruct the tree, and you have carried it all in your backpack, which is ten pounds heavier. Now imagine that when you email or call your fellow group members regarding a shooting schedule, or about writing a new scene, or about sending a picture for their bio on the website, all you hear is this.
It’s not so much the anger that gets you, or even the frustration that brings you down. It’s the isolation, the loneliness. In a project where everyone has equal power and where support must come from within, you feel alone and unheard. And when you do get together there are disagreements with the direction of the project. So either your partners changed their goals or you never really understood them in the first place. Suddenly your hopes for the project slowly fade and you look back over all the work you have put in and all you can think is, “How futile.” This does not for a successful arrangement make.
How do you take a project with absolutely no money and make it successful? How do you overcome every obstacle (and there are many) that’s thrown your way? How do you work with people you no longer agree with and that you find hard to stand? You talk to each other, constantly. If we had all been clear with each other from the absolute beginning and had remained to do so throughout the project, I believe we could have kept going. Knowing where people come from and what their hopes and dreams are can go a long way in smoothing the tides. If there is a difference or a disagreement, then things like hierarchy and division of labor can be used to help forgo potential issues. I’m not saying we would have been able to avoid all of our problems, but we could have prepared for them so that when they did arrive we wouldn’t have been blindsided.
And it’s not just communicating but how you’re communicating. If you’re speaking in passive tones, sending messages between the words, you need to get the fuck out. To quote Sidney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon, “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.” Be forward, be direct; although confrontation isn’t fun, it is necessary. By doing anything else you are only adding to the problem. But it doesn’t help to be combative either, which is where I faltered. When my heart is in something and I believe that I’m right I can be incredibly difficult and stubborn. But to my credit I never claimed to be otherwise, and in those instances I would always go with the majority rule by the end.
To be fair to all of us, we weren’t adults or professionals, not really. This was the first major project that any of us had ever taken on our own and we didn’t understand what we were doing. How were we to know that gone unsaid our motives would end up breaking us apart? These are hard lessons that must be learned the hard way. So hard, in fact, that we still haven’t talked about any of this since we disbanded. And in the end, I can only speak for myself. It’s been two years and we’ve only gotten together as a group once or twice in that time. Not one of us has a full picture as to why things fell apart and it’s hard to talk about because there are still emotions running high. At least they are for me. I’m only just now realizing my thoughts and feelings about what happened and I get upset. In my experience, I worked so incredibly hard and made a lot of compromises make things work, and it still fell apart. I try to own up to the part that I played in it all, but how do you do that when you don’t know what the experiences of the others are?
This was the last PSA that we shot and I was extremely happy with it. A wonderful performance as Brick, a wonderful script by Pete, and some almost scary caricatures of us all by yours truly made the PSA fresh and quite heartfelt. But this was not the last thing that we shot. There is an entire episode “In The Field” that we shot out in the desert that was supposed to be our fourth episode, and then the first half of what was to be our third called “Orders” that had an incredible performance by my friend Michael Etzrodt, the only man that, to my knowledge, has ever wielded a hammer taped to a gun.
I am sad that we weren’t able to see it through to the end, but I am extremely proud of what we have done. It was original, it was funny and it was well received (with what little audience we had). But most of all, it was true and it was real. Through our fun and play we spoke on the friendship that only young men can have, a brotherhood based on laughter and loyalty. Did we comment on these directly? No, but that was the point. Like the last seasons of MASH, if we had tried to force some grander message into the series we would have come off preachy. Instead watching us four act like idiots on the screen was like meeting old high school friends and starting exactly where you left off. We were a reminder that some friendships never change and that’s the way it should be. In the short time AirSWAT was active, we made our viewers feel like they were part of the group, and I was happy to have them. As I am happy to have had you.
Okay, this one won’t be that long. I’ve talked about most of the issues we had as a group already, and to continue would seem like regurgitation. I will talk about motives for a little bit, but I’m saving the big lesson for the last entry which is looming on the horizon like some kind of, I don’t know, celestial orb or something, burning with the heat of hell’s fury.
Now people can have different motives for doing things, which is fine. I have a friend that drinks to escape the misery of life, and I drink because my great-great-grandfather was a bottle of gin and so it’s up to me to maintain the heritage. And yet we both get together and hit up the bars like we’re going to die tomorrow, which might be a self-fulfilling prophesy depending on how much liquor we can get our hands on. But motives can also clash and on artistic projects how those clashes are dealt with could mean the difference between a great partnership and never working with each other ever again.
One person is it in for the money. One person is strictly about the art. One is for the jokes and the other for the action. One is willing to alter the idea to reach the biggest audience, and the other is willing to sacrifice viewership for originality. None of these are the wrong choices and they aren’t necessarily polar opposites –
– but given equal power and gone unsaid, the separate motives of the individuals will damage the group as a whole. Something has to give, and each side has negative connotations. Work for the money, you’re a sellout. Work for the art, you’re a snob. Try to work for both and you’re unrealistic. The only thing more important than figuring out your partners’ motives is figuring out yours, not just for the project but for your life as an artist. Where you fall in this constant debate between artists will not just sculpt your work but the environment you build for yourself.
This was the beginning of our zany PSA’s, where we ditched trying to deliver some social-minded message for getting in whatever one-liners we couldn’t fit into the main script, and because of that this ended up being the weakest one. It’s still funny, but it’s also transparent, neither relying on us as a misguided group nor individual characters spreading awareness. It does make me hungry every time I watch it though.
This is going to be a shorter article as I am a busy busy busy man.
When working on a personal project that does not produce any monetary value, high morale and fun replace currency. You must set goals because that’s the only way to get things done in this world, but it is almost more important to make sure you are doing what you’re doing because you like doing it (doing doing doing doing). When morale drops, when the only form of payment from the process lessens, you are effectively cutting your own pay thereby making the entire project more like laborious work than something you care about. And that pay cut will stick around with you for a lot longer than a monetary one if you are invested in the project enough for your immediate emotional well-being to be at stake.
As time has gone on it was apparent that the group’s motivation for the series started to split and shift from the original concept. That’s fine. The evolution of an idea is a vital and necessary part of the process but none of us agreed on where exactly to take it. More business? More craft? More advertising? More rewrites? We never fully agreed on where we wanted it to go as a group (hell, we hardly talked about that until the end) and the rift between our own personal goals for the project caused tension between us.
The second episode (which was actually the third episode we filmed as we shot one out in the desert for promotional material) was much more involved than the first. There were more locations, more props, choreography, potential pyrotechnics (which we soon decided to use CGI for, much to my distaste as I am very willing to sacrifice my friend’s genitals in order for it to “look real”), and many more times when we had to be innovative and change our strategy to get as close to the script as possible with what little time and materials we had. I think what we ended up with was great. Not perfect, but I think that hint of rawness added to the makeshift feel of Irish and the Car-Bombs.
But the shooting was no longer as fun as it had been when we started. For the entirety of the second episode, my favorite part was location scouting. We ended up hiking through the wilderness for the entire day and by the end we found a huge mountain of dirt that we took turns jumping off of. That feeling of boys playing in the dirt, a small brotherhood where communication could occur without words, is what the show was really about. Not airsoft, not action, not comedy. It was about the friendship that only guys share, part humor, part bravado, part loyalty, and I think as we started to lose focus on that we started to lose control of the series.
I don’t think this article ended up being any shorter than the last. Dammit, now I’m tired but I don’t know if I can get to slewopjiwa;ovio;3rh o og…………………………………………………………………………………………………….
It’s hard enough just getting by in this world, let alone trying to do something. But when someone comes along and starts spouting condescending, parental-sounding bullshit advice then you suddenly have to deal with murderous rage alongside everything else. Please forgive the general truism, but if you are to succeed in any venture a definite structure must be set into place. God, I feel dirty, excuse me while I take a shower.
Unfortunately, it’s true (truism . . . true . . . oh, I get it). We had no solid structure to how we went about producing. Oh, I tried to keep a calendar and notes of when we talked, but these were feeble attempts when a key element in the structure was missing: Hierarchy. In AirSWAT, each of us held the same amount of power as the others in every aspect of the project. This was fine in general as AirSWAT wouldn’t have existed if we each hadn’t been involved, but in regards to each particular production it was a detriment. Going from my POV for a moment (unlike the rest of the article which should be considered straight from the mouth of THE LORD), working endlessly on the script from conception to realization only to have one of the others argue against a crucial plot point during production was more than just aggravating but truly upsetting. And I’m sure that this happened vice versa as I would argue/comment about an area that I did not have experience in, such as the actual filming process. Undermining each other is a natural part of this set up.
If for every production we had said, “Okay, Nic and Pete, you write. Matt, handle direction and filming. Mark, just . . . just . . . just act, man. You’re good at that,” then a hierarchy would have been set. We could have written, directed and produced without getting in each other’s way, thereby forgoing many of the issues that we ended up having with each other.
But there’s more to it than the practical. Now here comes another truism, but this one doesn’t make me feel like some corporate stooge so I won’t need to take another shower.
On a creative project, you can wear many hats, but you can not wear them at the same time. You can not write as an editor or you will spend all of your time nitpicking and the writing will suffer. You can not act at the exact same time you are directing others or else you won’t be in the moment and the performance will suffer. You can not produce and promote at the same time or the project will suffer. You can do all of those things, but you must do them separately or else the quality of the work will lessen. The separation between duties and roles is vital to the success of a creative endeavor.
Here is another PSA, the only one we didn’t film in a garage with a parachute as a back drop. To his credit this was one of Mark’s ideas, and it was the last PSA that we filmed that actually could have a genuine message to it.
One thing about writing comedy with a group is that you are often times overloaded with gags, making the real challenge not one of creating the jokes but one of trying to figure out where to put them all. This is actually much harder than it seems. How do you connect an exploding car, a pack of rancid meat, the line, “The t-shirt means nothing! We give everyone the t-shirt!” and the image of the four us standing in the desert, all naked save the one who’s in a chicken costume together? We discovered in our process that if we wrote the script around the jokes (e.g. we start with this joke, then link to the one we wrote yesterday, and then link, etc.) we ended up with a script that distanced itself from a large population. It was a script full of inside jokes. Sure it was funny if you already knew each of us and how we all interacted together, but then to make something like that is a form of just laughing at our own jokes at the expense of connecting with the audience. You’ve met those assholes at parties; people who “know” they are “funny”, what with their “witty” references to the American The Office and “clever” nicknames for all of their “friends” based on past events.
No one laughs at those people. We only wish to punish them, because between all of their bullshit they are treating people like a) stupid because they don’t understand the reference, or even worse b) irrelevant because they weren’t there. Usually a mixture of the two. As for me, I always make sure to convey my distaste for their attitude . . .
But if you base all the jokes around the script and the story, you get something that makes sense to everyone because although the jokes are still “inside jokes”, through the story you have brought the audience to the inside. Not only that, but new jokes will be created while writing the script that may be even funnier than the original idea. The downside to this is that you may have jokes that you’ll never use because the script never gave you an opening for it. This can be an alarming thing because even with four people working on the script at some point everyone will forget that hilarious joke if it’s never written down in the script.
One way around this is to write everything down. But if you’ve ever woken up and wrote down something you want to buy in the morning only to awake the next day to the note “Buysa Nu Goat Mask” you understand that without context, words on a piece of paper are useless. And if you’re going to sit down and write the context you might as well start writing the script. The other way is to keep writing material until you get to a place where the joke does fit. This is equivalent to having one puzzle piece that fits none of your puzzles, so you say, “Fuck it” and make your own puzzle around that piece that features dragons, fire, lasers, space coyotes, all kinds of sexy naked people and a shit ton of gold.
It’s through that method that we started writing small vignettes in the form of public service announcements. They were for all the jokes we couldn’t find a place for in the normal episodes. They also gave the characters a sense of depth. In between them acting like idiots on the airsoft field and in training missions during the episodes, they also acted like idiots in the real world.
These were important not just to our writing, but in our morale as well. Once we had started shooting the series being involved with AirSWAT was mostly work and planning, and at times we would get bogged down and tired. The PSA’s let us get back to the ever-so-fun writing stage and were often so easy to shoot we could film three or four in one day. If AirSWAT had caught on and had been able to continue, the PSA’s would have added a whole different element to the series.
The amount of work and energy that goes into shooting something can be extraordinary, especially if you set a high standard for yourself. Because we were drawing our inspiration from the great blockbuster action movies, we wanted AirSWAT to have a similar style. But with our limited resources and availability the elements seemed to be working against us. First and foremost – Our BudgetBWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
I’m sorry, I couldn’t keep a straight face. We didn’t have a budget. Not in the sense of, “We had $15 to work with.” That implies a sort of pooling of finances. We did not do that. We would end up going in on some purchases together later on, but at the time we each operated separately. Matt got the water and reserved the location, Mark got the posters and camera, I’m not sure what Pete got but I know he got something, and I got the donuts. We all spent our own money and we all went into hock a little bit.
Second – Equipment. We wanted a high quality look to AirSWAT, which meant we had to bump it up to HD. Unfortunately none of us had an HD camera. I had a video camera but it only worked if you wanted to end up with a “Nondescript Shapes of Changing Color and Size” sort of feel. We were able to borrow an HD camera easily enough, but it was a snare in our psyche. Every single time we shot something, we would have to find an HD camera to borrow or rent. Or we throw down and buy one of our own, which would mean spending money we didn’t have. Either way, it was an issue we would have to deal with every single shoot and I believe this was the first hit to our morale. The dilemma was a small hint of the large task we had taken on.
Third – Division of Labor. I was incredibly gung-ho in pre-production. Conceptualizing, writing, drafting, scheduling, planning, casting, designing; I basically ran the pre-production side. Not that the others didn’t do work by any means. I was just the guy with the checklist, making sure everything got done. And I didn’t mind it so much. I would have liked it if all of us were involved at every step of the process, that everyone helped carry the load throughout the series, but it just didn’t happen that way. In a general split –
Concepts – Everyone
Writing – Pete and I
Pre-production – Mark and I
Production – Matt and Mark
Post-Production – Mark and I
This split is fine, but it’s something we never agreed on. If we had a definitive list of roles I believe we would have been okay. The lack of it, however, definitely caused tension. I would strain to write, draft and put everything in place that by the time it came to shoot I wouldn’t handle any of the production, apart from the acting. This caused resentment in the others who worked their butts off on the shoot, which then caused my resentment for them not helping me in the first place. And so on and so forth. This was one of the major factors in the dissolution of AirSWAT.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The shoot for the first episode was fantastic. We were right on schedule, the performances from the actors were above what we hoped for, what little crew we were able to get added a lot to the look and visuals, and we weren’t arrested.
Most importantly, we were starting to discover people believed in AirSWAT, more than just our parents who are all under legal binding contracts to be supportive –
– but also the actors and others who helped us. People believed we were onto something, and that we were talented enough to make it good. Nothing represents our realization that we were on the right track more than this first episode.
And let me tell you, the rest of them went the exact sameBWAHAHAHA!
Sorry, I did it again.