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.
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.