When we landed in Lexington to make our film about Tony Anderson, we had a pretty good idea how things were going to turn out. We’d written a treatment. We’d picked out a few song options. We had a schedule and a shot list and a bunch of little boxes just waiting for us to put a checkmark in them. Overall, we felt pretty confident. We knew when we got back to our office in Fort Worth that we’d be able to put together something decent.
And then it all went out the window when Tony’s friend Donnie showed up.
If you’ve seen the film, you know who we’re talking about. Donnie is Tony Anderson’s eccentric best friend who’s been teaching Tony what it means to put people before work — and Donnie was about to teach us the same lesson.
To tell you the truth, we were a little bit annoyed when Donnie showed up. We had a limited amount of time to get all the shots we needed, and the longer Donnie hung out, the more difficult it was to get them. We tried, very politely, to ask Donnie to leave.
It’s funny now, looking back on it, to realize that our initial reaction to Donnie was the same as Tony’s. It’s so easy to get caught up in your plans and completely miss the big picture of what’s happening around you. It wasn’t until we finally threw away our script, crumpled up our list of checkboxes, and gave ourselves over to the moment that we were able to make the film we should have been making all along.
Here are a few lessons we learned along the way.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in your plans and completely miss the big picture of what’s happening around you.”
In its own way, filmmaking is an act of control. We take disparate elements and create something new out of them. We shoot hours of footage and keep minutes. We come into a situation with a script, and we leave with a film. If you’re not careful, the whole process can become mechanical. Sterile. Safe. And if we’re being completely honest, that’s what it had become for us. We know how to make our films. We know what we’re after. So when we went to shoot the Tony Anderson film, we weren’t going there hoping for any surprises.
The funny thing about it, though, is that the very element we didn’t expect and couldn’t control — Donnie — is exactly who made this film so magical, so memorable. There’s just something so honest about him, and we would have completely missed it if we’d insisted on sticking to our plan. And so, while spontaneity may always scare us and we’re certainly not going to stop making plans anytime soon, we’ve learned that it’s the moments we can’t control that are always going to be the most beautiful.
“While spontaneity may always scare us, we’ve learned that it’s the moments we can’t control that are always going to be the most beautiful.”
We had talked early on about using Donnie as a character in the film, but we’d killed the idea because we knew it would be too unpredictable. We all agreed it would make more sense to focus on Tony and not take any chances. Well, almost all of us agreed. One of our filmmakers, Max, had an instinct from the beginning that Donnie was going to be an important part of the story. But by the time we were on our way to Lexington, that angle had been completely removed from the script.
Max, of course, was a team player about it; but as soon as Donnie unexpectedly showed up at Tony’s door, Max was immediately rolling. Had it not been for Max, we might not have been able to see past our nearsighted vision for this film. When the good stuff came along, we might have been too afraid to chase it. All of us had to eat a little humble pie and admit that Max had been right all along (Don’t let it go to your head, Max.) But the fact is, you need to surround yourself with people you trust, people who can pull you out of your comfort zone to create something amazing. Nobody is right all of the time. Your chances are better as a team.
“Donnie reminded us what it’s like to interview someone who is completely comfortable being himself.”
One thing this shoot led us to reflect on is what we’re after in the films we make. And more specifically, what we’re after in our interviews, which usually act as the backbone of our stories. Donnie was such an open book, completely comfortable with our cameras and our questions, happy to show us anything and tell us everything. Donnie didn’t wear any sort of mask. He was who he was.
It got us thinking about how the most interesting part of any interview is that moment when you watch someone struggling to take off the mask — to be who he or she really is. That tension is so compelling and so relatable. It’s unknowingly been at the center of a lot of our work. Donnie reminded us what it’s like to interview someone who is completely comfortable being himself. He challenged us to find those moments with everyone we put on screen.
The film, in its final form, seems to resonate with a lot of people. It even received a Vimeo Staff Pick, which is always nice. But the strange thing is, it’s hard for us to take credit for it. It’s almost like the story was there all along, and we were just lucky enough to stumble upon it, lucky enough to have a team member brave enough to follow it. It’s hard to know who exactly is responsible for a film like this. We were honored just to be a part of it.
We still get messages from Donnie — video text messages — about once a week. Even in that short amount of time we spent with him, we ended up sharing more inside jokes with Donnie than we’ve shared with people from any other shoot we’ve done. Tony told us Donnie watched the film, but we haven’t heard what he thought of it. Maybe he hated it and he doesn’t want to hurt our feelings.
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