Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Which is harder, writing a novel or making a film?

My friend Philippe, who is a huge Satyajit Ray fan and is one of seven people who has actually seen the Calcutta trilogy in addition to the Apu trilogy, is in town with his wife Amanda. I met up with him yesterday and had a long talk about various things while walking around Tsim Sha Tsoy and Jordan.

At one point, he asked me, Which was harder, writing a novel or making a film?

It got me thinking...

Here is a long-winded response.

As a novelist, I guess I would be called a mid-career writer on grant applications and such due to my age, the fact that I have accomplished a few things despite how shabby these things all look to me when I get down on myself every now and then. Still, whatever the case, no matter how obscure and seemingly insignificant, the fact is I am the author of two serious novels that have won me a modicum of recognition, no matter how brief and fleeting. And as comical as my royalty checks are at times, I know that there are lots of would-be aspiring novelists out there working away on their babies who would die to get their first book published.

As a filmmaker, I have far fewer credentials. Sure I made an indie 16mm feature film back in the 1990s straight out of NYU, but that feature went nowhere and was lackluster on many fronts. Since then, I've made a couple of short films that are about 20min. long. I've written a couple of screenplays, managed to sell one for a little bit of money (it never got produced). Now, I'm in Hong Kong and I've begun making very short art films (1 min. long), which I post on this blog and on youtube.

For all intensive purposes, my claim to the title filmmaker seems tenuous at best. Still, as annoying and insignificant as making little films and posting them on youtube may seem, I do it because: a) it keeps me in practice (framing shots, shooting, editing etc.); b) These little films do get seen by a handful of people; c) It's immediate. I can shoot, edit, and post the films without having to first gain the permission of some board of self-important censors to give me their approval.

Writing is different. Unless you're writing in a journal for your eyes only (which this blog sort of is), writing entails jumping through a lot of hoops. There was a time when I was a lot more eager about accepting how things were done to make it as a writer. I was more in love with the idea of writing and being a writer in general back then. So I wrote short stories, submitted them to numerous literary journals, wrote to agents, and amassed a pile of rejection letters before a confluence of little miracles got my first novel BOY GENIUS published by an edgy small press in NY.

But boy did I get sick of all those little hoops you had to jump through. Waiting for someone else's permission gets real old real quick.

And sure, with feature films, you have to go through similar things with finding distributors and 'winning their permission', but it's different with a film.

Even the worst film ever made that doesn't win distribution and simply peters out, offers pleasant things: camaraderie with cast and crew, funny anecdotes, and some cool memories.

A failed novel is a totally different animal.

There's nothing as shabby and unpleasant as a failed novel, aka, an unpublished manuscript. All you have is a bunch of pages that's not a real book and the only memories from it is of a schmuck and a typewriter.

Just ask anyone who's tried to write a novel and is now stuck with an unpublished manuscript. It's ugly.

Anyway, that's my three cents. Writing vs. Filmmaking.

The winner is Mothra.

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