Humans are productive beings; it’s in our nature. We excel in building, creating, and existing in a constant state of motion. But, this comes with its downside too. We’re also prone to overworking and overstressing. Burning out. So, how do we maintain a healthy lifestyle without self-destructing? Maybe we need to change our perception of what “productive” really means. As Tina Essmaker, founder and former editor of The Great Discontent, puts it, “when you make space in your life, the universe will fill it.” In other words, sometimes we need to get out of our own way.
No one is exploring this perception change more intentionally than Director Henry Busy. He recently took representation at Rattling Stick, a decision that took a leap of faith in his career and personal life. This transition also created something he wasn’t quite expecting — free time, and lots of it. So, he decided to conduct a little experiment and do what most of us wouldn’t dare: embrace it.
“That’s a part of the ‘desert space’ where it gets a little kooky. You spend tons of time by yourself in your apartment, either waiting for the phone to ring or just thinking about your ideas,” Henry told us. “I joke with friends that I sit around and stare at a wall for ten hours a day [laughs]. It’s not that extreme, but my day-to-day life has been super simple and quiet.”
In all honesty, Henry’s a braver man than many of us creatives. It’s terrifying to not have a goal in mind, to let your future lie in waiting. This pioneer in solitude, though, is taking advantage of his free time, using it to foster creativity and make himself a stronger director. He’s smack-dab in the middle of this experience and we were fortunate enough to pick his brain. Here’s Henry.
Henry Busby: It was a hard decision. I think a lot of directors struggle when they get to the point where they have to make choices — where am I going and how am I going to work? I’ve actually talked to a lot of people about it. I ended up being a contact point with some directors when they’re getting to that stage and talk about either switching production companies or picking their first one. It’s a stressful process.
I went through that process of being on the fence, trying to decide what I was going to do for a few months. It’s a weird limbo to live in. I talked to different production companies and I really got to know the people at Rattling Stick. We made that switch back in January, so it’s been seven months now. So I’m going through my own personal wilderness, knocking on the door and having to kick my way into a new arena.
In the last year since making that transition, I don’t know what it was, but things have been shifting for me in my life outlook. I’ve loosened up, I think, in my career and what I want to do. There’s this initial phase for a lot of young directors. It’s all about climbing that mountain, staking out your territory — hustle, hustle, hustle. Learn everything you can. Meet everyone you can. Know every trend you can. You have to climb your way up that first mountain, in terms of getting your work noticed as a young director.
Then, I felt like I got to the top of that first little peak where some people were noticing my work. It’s not like I’m winning an Oscar or anything, but for the first time, I was thinking, okay, this is working. Things are going pretty well. When you come to the top of that summit there’s just another plateau. You just look around and it’s just flat up there.
Right? What do I do now? My tendency, and I think a lot of people share this tendency, is that when they reach that “plain of nothingness” they want to fill that space back up. Go immediately and find the next mountain, the next thing to climb. So, what I’ve actually been doing this year is learning to slow down and explore that desert space a little bit, if that makes sense. Instead of forcing myself to write out a plan for what’s next, I’m trying to slow down and be as quiet as possible, so whatever desires I have will float up from below, instead of me trying to discover them out in the wilderness.
It’s the difference between hunting and fishing if you know what I mean.
Oh man. All kinds of stuff. I felt better, personally, when I slowed down to make sure that each move I’m making is something that actually feels truthful to me. Immediately it changes my outlook and how I interact with the world. When you start to feel better, better things start to come out. I found myself to be a lot more creative when I was willing to sit with discomfort and wait through things, not be in such a rush.
Well, the first step for me was clearing the board to where I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of things emptied from my life so there are fewer things in it. So that space is clear. Then some of those more creative thoughts, desires, or urges start to emerge. At first, I try not to impose too much structure or discipline on them. Allow myself to be a little lazy I guess because I’m still at the quiet phase where I’m still collecting things. As those creative ideas or projects get a little bit more mature, I start to bring back discipline so I can put those things back into the world.
Yes and no. There’s a fine line. Of course, I think absorbing great art and a lot of different things to enrich the ideas in your head is important, but you also have to go through seasons where those things are not as important. I’ll have cycles where I feel like I want to sponge in tons of things. Then I’ll have seasons where I consciously try to forget everything. If the ideas bubbling in my head are in their infancy stage, I really try to keep a lot of the references away from them so the idea can grow up on its own two legs, instead of being a melting pot of ten films I watched while I was thinking about it.
I’d hardly call it a structure. I was living alone this year for the first time and I’ve also been back to a pure freelance lifestyle. When I was at Voyager (the production company he worked with prior to Rattling Stick), it was a very communal vibe. I was in the office a lot. Now I’m doing something much different. Both of Rattling Stick’s offices are in London and L.A., so I don’t actually have a direct connection to an office here in New York. I’m floating out there a little bit.
That’s a part of the “desert space” where it gets a little kooky. You spend tons of time by yourself in your apartment, either waiting for the phone to ring or just thinking about your ideas. I joke with friends that I sit around and stare at a wall for ten hours a day [laughs]. It’s not that extreme, but my day-to-day life has been super simple and quiet. I go on a lot of walks. I lay on the couch a lot. I do simple things like washing the dishes. A lot of creativity has flowed out of that simplicity. I’ve got scripts and different things now and I’m starting to come out of the cocoon a little bit, trying to bring these things to life. So, really, the answer is I don’t have a structure yet.
I tend to think that what you feel inside will manifest itself one way or another. I was reading this book about Walt Disney called Hollywood’s Dark Prince. He had an extremely chaotic and tumultuous childhood, which, of course, was acutely reflected in the first five animated films that Disney produced. But, if you were to ask Walt Disney if he was making personal films, he’d say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just making cartoons.” But his subconscious was finding a way into the work.
I think you’ll live a healthier life if you’re in touch with those subconscious thoughts. When I write something I can look at it and say, “Oh, okay, that’s what it’s about.” But if your life is out of balance and you’re repressing a bunch of things in your daily life, you won’t be able to see it. Your day-to-day is super chaotic and your relationships are falling apart, but you’re making this brilliant art. It’s all of that subconscious purging itself. But, is that really the way you want to live? That’s not the way I want to live. If I take the time to get to know what’s under the surface with myself, then I write it out and it’s not so scary.
It’s almost like building my personal philosophy guides the way for my directing philosophy. I find myself jotting lots of notes, directing advice to myself. I go back and glance at them and sometimes there will be something good there. I’ll write notes on my phone while I’m running. I like to put music on and just write stray thoughts. Sometimes it’s a little confusing, but overall it’s stimulating.
Well, yes and no. Right now I write a lot of treatments. When one of those lands, all of a sudden the pace picks back up and maybe I’m gone for three or four weeks on a job. Then life feels very hectic and busy again. That email can come any day. But, it’s really hard to know when things are going to break, so I just keep trying every day. If nothing’s coming through, then I’m content to do the things that make me happy.
Freeing up space in your schedule is not an easy thing to do. In fact, in the U.S. at least, our culture actively rejects it. It’s seen as counter-productive, even lazy. But, if we’re not willing to reflect and face our own thoughts, do we have an accurate perspective of our work? So, try Henry’s experiment out for yourself. Maybe seven months is a little aggressive, so start with a weekend. You may be surprised at the results. Let us know in the comments below what you think, and if you’ve had surprising results from giving yourself space to be “unproductive.”