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Embracing Grit and Grace as a Female Filmmaker (or just in life)

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Grit and grace may be my new life keywords, motto, mantra, whatever. After production on Mama’s Eggnog, a fun little holiday film made with friends and C. Thomas Howell (The Outsiders, ET) I had a series of epiphanies about how we were able to make this film possible. We’re currently in Post Production and excited to share it with the world.

Speaking From Personal Experience

Shortly before pre-production on Mama’s Eggnog I was unexpectedly dumped by a person I thought was my life partner and was 100% committed to. Simultaneously, the Director of Photography for the film left the project. I was left emotionally heartbroken, high and dry professionally, and stuck in a fog that left me wondering how to fulfill the commitments I had made to make this movie happen. Between hours of tears and blank stares at my computer screen I just kept thinking, “Well, this is gonna be the shittiest thing I ever Produce”. But that isn’t what happened. Looking back, I see now, that a hell of a lot of grit and grace (and good friends) led me through the tough times and showed me who I really was all along.

Let’s Make a Movie

With a broken heart and a crushed spirit, I slugged through the start, just reminding myself to put one foot in front of the other. There were so many tears! It was a sad, sloppy existence for a few weeks. We’ve all been there, right? (If you are there right now, it does get better. And I know you don’t believe me.) Eventually, the movie became the perfect distraction, and I started welcoming the challenges this film had to offer. And boy, this beast of a movie had many!

I found a new DP. Our budget was small, and our crew tiny. Less than 10 people some days. Never more than 14. But even only a few days in, I knew that this team was something special. Despite stresses like having NO art department (pretty sure we are all getting credit for that), and everyone wearing multiple hats (I was also ADing)…everyone seemed to be, shhh, dare I say it – HAVING FUN! We laughed a lot, and all shared love for our set cat, Elvis, who probably snuck in 30 or so times on his best day. By the end of the first week, my confidence had grown, I wasn’t so bad at this…we were making great choices and enjoying work. And the crew actually still wanted to have a beer together after spending 12 hours together already. A sure sign of a project going well. It was pretty fucking fun.

When Shit Hit the Fan, A True Tale of Corporate Bullshit

Week two went by without major hiccups, outside of the impending doom I was starting to feel about week three. Week three was tough because we were in new locations and had a couple days with company moves. The opening scene of the film takes place at a mortuary and I had been in talks for a long while with an absolutely stunning location in Portland. All the paperwork was in…we were just waiting on approval from their Corporate Headquarters for permission to begin filming. We were slated to start filming on a Sunday and continue at this location through Tuesday. But that permission just wasn’t showing up in my inbox, no matter how many follow ups I sent. By late afternoon the Thursday before, I was begging the site rep for a way to gain permission to go over the heads of the people we were dealing with directly. I was 100% sure there were no issues with our request or insurance coverage and that it was purely a matter of the right eyes looking at it. A true tale of corporate bullshit. By late afternoon on Friday I am looking for alternative plans and was told we can’t even film exteriors there without this corporate permission, and these yahoos were on the other side of the country! Our site rep was amazing and doing the best she could to help us, but to no avail for her either. By 5pm on Friday I am internally freaking out…I have never had shit hit the fan like this before. A main location that just isn’t going to come through in time? WTF!?!?! WTF???!!! And it didn’t. 5pm came and went and I knew we were screwed for at least Sunday, the start of the last three days of production – the three most important days in our schedule.

I had no idea what to do. Extending the shoot wasn’t possible for several reasons. I just kept thinking “This is my job…to make this happen…and make it happen on this timeline with this budget. Fuck.” That night, I asked the DP to meet me for a beer to see if the one and only solution I could come up with was insane or doable or both. With worried eyes, he listened to my asinine idea to recreate one of the spaces at the Mortuary, the witness viewing room, at the main house location we had already used. This would allow us to shoot on Sunday and then film at the mortuary once we got permission and with fingers crossed that would come Monday morning. The simplest way to put the plan…we would use a bedroom and remove all of the furniture, redress, stain and affix new doors, and install a large, 6’ x 4’ “window” that would match enough to cut to a real window in the crematorium, once we gained permission to film there. Then, when filming at the crematorium, we would bring all of the bits and pieces to match what was set up at the house to sell that they are in the same location. Yes, this was a bat shit crazy plan. With no art department. But I believed it could work and needed to know if he did too. He must have a crazy streak like me, because the longer we thought it out, the more convinced we were we had to try it.

The Team Backed Me Up

While this solution was by no means anyone’s first choice, it was the only choice. The DP embraced the concept and then fully backed me up in explaining it to our crew the next morning. With no art department, everyone quickly stepped in with what they could do to help. A grip went to Home Depot. Then, helped us finish and install 2 doors and new knobs. Actors took apart furniture. We went shopping for tables. I redressed our crafty coffee setup into the scene. We hung trimming to frame the “window” with Command Strips. It took hours. It wasn’t fun. Frankly, it was gruelling and awful.

The Outcome

Once it started coming together, people started speaking in hushed tones about how good it was looking. How it was working. How we might actually finish the movie on time. And after one long day of overtime, we did. We got permission to film on Monday morning. We successfully made it match when we got to the crematorium two days later and were using the real window. This is an experience I will never forget. This team came together with a shit-ton of grit and grace to make the final three days of this movie happen. And I love every single one of them for it.

Filming Mama’s Eggnog was just one huge reminder that we always have what we need deep inside of us, and there are probably more people who will back you up than you think. Here are my new rules for how to find grit and grace within yourself.

Grit is Guts, Goals and Gusto

Here are the rules.

  1. Never give up. NEVER. On average, most films take about 5 years to make it into production. Many take more than that. Develop the stamina to see it through. Often, when we think our tank is empty, there is a little more left in the reserves. The pride and confidence that comes from finding your reserves and using them to your advantage is something I hope everyone experiences, it’s a great feeling.
  2. Keep high expectations of yourself and others. Grit comes from pressing yourself to be better and stronger and setting a goal and making it happen, no matter what. By letting others know that your expectation is success for you and them, it allows the grit in everyone to be activated. That is when movie magic starts happening.
  3. Be confident that there is always a solution. Mental toughness is about allowing yourself to believe there is A solution. Often, the solution may not be one we like, but there is a solution. And sometimes, solutions we don’t like end up surprising us in the end, see my story above.
  4. Dig deep daily. You won’t always be motivated…it doesn’t matter. This is one of my favorite things about people in the film industry. They show up, they put their head down and they do the work. This is where grit begins. You are not always going to feel inspired or excited and pushing through those moments and continuing to move forward is the basis of grit. Godspeed!

Grace is Goodwill, Gratitude and Generosity

Here are the other rules.

  1. A smile goes for miles. Seriously. Smiling even when shit has hit the fan can make you feel better about it and give a boost of confidence to those around you about it as well. Delivering bad news with a smile, or finding a way to also find something positive in the situation helps reframe the problem and gives everyone some breathing room to start finding a good solution.
  2. No matter what, treat others how you would want to be treated. This is a call back to my first ever Ms. in the Biz article and still, likely, one of my best. There is no way to form good relationships with others without finding a wealth of mutual respect and kindness. Grab a coffee for a co-worker or bring them a snack, do everything you wish someone would do for you and see what happens.
  3. Admit failure. It is okay to come clean when you’ve done your best, but it just still isn’t right or didn’t work. Mistakes happen. Be willing to take responsibility when appropriate. Doing so will show your team that you are strong enough to admit when you were off your game. Failure is a huge part of success, so recognizing it and moving on is what will make you better at whatever you do. Hmm, that also sounds a lot like grit.
  4. Be a good collaborator. Give and take is a part of making a movie. Everyone is there for the same reason and in most cases everyone is giving their all to make the film as good as it can be. Keep this in mind when the conversation gets heated over the small things like the direction of a door, a line of dialog, or whether the coverage will cut together. Everyone is on the same team. Repeat as necessary.

Finding the perfect balance of grit and grace will surely be a lifelong challenge, but one that I’ve fully accepted. Mama’s Eggnog goes down in the books as one of the wildest, but worth it, films in my Producer storybook. Personally, it was an experience that reminded me why I love doing what I do – and that you always have more inside of you than you thought.

I’d love to hear about the times when you have called on grit or grace. Share with me on Instagram @pdxalyssa. You can follow Mama’s Eggnog on Instagram @mamas_eggnog.

Alyssa Roehrenbeck

About Alyssa Roehrenbeck

Alyssa Roehrenbeck is a get-shit-done type person with a fun loving, goofy side. She believes in working hard and playing hard – at the same time. As an Actress and Producer, she began at a young age by adapting and organizing neighborhood plays based on the popular American Girls collection (yes, really). She and her pals rehearsed, constructed hodge-podge costumes and then charged parents for admission and popcorn. After graduating from studies in Theater and Business, she’s honed her skills as not only a writer and actress, but as a smart and fearless Producer. She has Produced feature films like Seaside (starring Ariana DeBose from Broadway’s, The Donna Summer Musical & Hamilton), OK KO Game Jam for Cartoon Network, Misfits (starring Paige McKenzie) for Disney’s Free Period, and loads of web series and viral content, including The Drunk Show. For more information and current projects, head over to Deep Sea Pictures.