“Wow, it's a real movie. No offense, but it's a real movie. And it's on Netflix!” A reaction I get extremely frequently from most people I meet, work or re-connect with.
I don’t get offended of course, I’m just very surprised at how often this happens. In people’s minds “San Francisco and tech” seems to be completely incongruent with “moviemaker with a film on Netflix”. A real movie, to boot.
I won’t get into why I made the movie I made but rather how come I made it with no prior background or training in film. Short answer: I harnessed the many advantages of being a complete outsider to the film industry. The real truth is that my dream wasn’t really to make a feature film. And yet, filmmaking is like a second career now.
I started writing the story of “For Here or To Go?” in early 2010- writing was initially just part of my bucket list of skills to learn. My only criteria was to write something substantial- I wanted a bigger challenge than just writing short blog posts. After having taken a leisurely two years to complete the screenplay, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the story and characters were received by those who I narrated it to. What dawned upon me was also the timeliness of the story I had written- this was a little known topic which affected my life and that of millions of other legal immigrants in the U.S. Here’s what my screenwriting coach Lisa Rosenberg at the at the SF Film society had to say about final script
A FRESH, ENGAGING PORTRAIT OF THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE THAT WE HAVE NOT SEEN ON FILM BEFORE .
Lisa has taught screenwriting for over 25 years and edited scripts for Lucas films amongst many writing credits to her own name. So this was pretty encouraging for a first time screenwriter like me. I wondered if I could get the actual film made- I didn’t have much to lose in exploring possibilities. And that sentiment marked the beginning of my journey as an outsider.
As I took my script to various studios both in the U.S and in India, I found out that there were no takers for the script. I even had rejections from videographers and other freelancers on craigslist. Some more real world feedback later, my clear takeaway was “your idea, you make it.” Now, I was on a temporary visa myself with very limited time off, so there was no way I could take the time to make a full length feature film. Besides the small matter of me knowing absolutely nothing about producing, directing, acting et al.
Then, the most natural question struck my outsider mind- “Why not?”
This question combined with the sentiment of “not much to lose” is the essence of the outsider’s game. Jeff Bezos adds another important angle to this type of thinking with his “regret minimization framework”. He famously quit his stable, lucrative Wall Street career to ride the internet wave because he thought not taking a chance on it would lead him to regret it when he was 80. In his own words-
“I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.” - Jeff Bezos
I believed the film’s story was a very important one of our times and I would regret not even trying to get it made. Convincing others of making the film seemed like an insurmountable challenge but now my mind had framed it as a life adventure to take head on. Little did I know that this question would put me on a path that would alter my life forever.
Attempting to make the film would be my playground of possibilities- I had always wanted to get a taste of the startup world but my visa status had prevented me from doing so. So I started treating the opportunity of making the film as the startup I never had.
Adventures involve embracing the unknown, while challenges can make us feel clueless and weighed down from the very beginning. Challenges spark questions in your mind like “Where do I even start with this?”, while adventure inspires thoughts like, “Let’s figure this out!”
Anton Ego, the food critic character voiced by Peter O’toole in Pixar’s Ratatouille has this to say in his final monologue while he samples the food made by a rat named Remy-
“Not everyone can become an artist but a true artist can come from anywhere.” - Anton Ego
Ratatouille is an absolutely brilliant outsider success story. Remy has no training, no reputation, no connections and above all he is a rat! As if it were not hard enough already to succeed as a human with some training and reputation. Remy the rat became an amazing and acknowledged chef, of all things.
The adventure mindset as an outsider is what propels you to begin, to set course without being encumbered by your lack of experience. It's a leap of faith that compels you to rely on your instincts. It's a test of your appetite for risk. It’s the ultimate way of knowing your own self.
Outsiders are tinkerers- they have an insatiable curiosity and drive to figure things out. History is littered with examples of such tinkerers making incredible inventions and discoveries in fields they had not originally set out to master or trained in. From legendary polymaths like Leornardo Da Vinci; known for his art but who actually made a lot of incredible discoveries in human anatomy/medicine to contemporary greats like Elon Musk who has come out of being a software engineer to now leading companies in fields like space travel and renewable energy.
There are several strategic benefits as an outsider willingly opting in to an adventure. Foremost, it puts you in a solution-oriented mental space every step of the way. Because you know you don’t have the first clue about how to go about it, you become curious, get creative and start to dig deep within your existing life experience to frame the problem in terms that you understand.
As an outsider in the film world, I was purely driven by the problem I was trying to solve- how might I tell the story about the challenges of legal immigrants assimilating in a foreign land? This question may not even strike a professional who writes or makes films for a living because the common perception is that there isn’t sufficient room for drama with characters that work in well-paying jobs, drive fancy cars and have stable families. Where is the crime? Where is the discrimination? Where is the drama? No one wants to make a boring movie on a human emotion that’s not commonly experienced. But, as an outsider with direct life experience as an immigrant, I could see the entire drama in front of me. And it was entertaining.
Here’s what I knew before embarking on this challenge:
- Unencumbered- As an outsider, there’s no point to prove by making a full length feature film, except maybe to myself. There’s no expectation of reputation at stake. I’m unencumbered for success. This would be extremely freeing because it allowed me to take my own time in learning, experimenting, setting goals and progressing- liberties I’m not at with regular jobs or projects
- Massive learning opportunity - So lofty, ambitious and insurmountable is the goal of making and releasing a feature film, that I was certain that this would be how I learn writing, business, sales et al. Again, not an opportunity afforded in a job with a defined function.
- Experimental playground- I had some theories about how design thinking can benefit in contexts outside of interactive digital products and what type of films or stories I wanted to see more of in the world. This was an excellent opportunity for me to test my thinking out and learn from it.
- Willing to absorb losses for learning- As an outsider, I was eager to pay whatever “fee” was needed to learn to solve this real life challenge- from the outset it put me in an abundance mindset rather than scarcity mindset. Fear of loss, that is so prevalent in a lot of other life decisions, seemed to diminish at the prospect of real life learning and adventure.
- Clear vision - Obviously, making and releasing a movie while challenging is not something that other humans haven’t accomplished. In that sense, I knew I could leverage existing knowledge and pick-and-choose what I needed to reach my destination which was most certainly not to win prestigious awards or set the box office on fire but a far simpler one comparatively.
All of this knowledge helped to keep perspective because what was to follow was a roller-coaster of epic disasters and minor miracles mixed in with heaps of uncertainties. Like the time one of my main actors had his visa declined 3 weeks before shooting was to begin but then through some divine miracle (courtesy my dad) the rejection decision was reversed a day after the shoot began. Never before has someone won an American visa approval just a few weeks after it was rejected.
Or the time when I had no funds for the second of the shooting with all the artist dates, flights and locations locked in. I went ahead with the shoot regardless and somehow an investor I was pursuing came through on the very last day of shooting. Everyone got paid.
Those are just two instances. As I dove in, there was a ton of more pain and suffering along the way. From losing entire teams and crew members, empty bank accounts, car accidents, hard drive data losses, location mishaps, endlessly waiting on others and asking for favors, constantly being on road fundraising, legal battles, theft, empty theaters and some really bad reviews. There were countless instances of wanting to give up.
Reflecting back, it's the outsider advantage that helped in large part with enduring and ultimately succeeding.
- Beginners mindset- no matter the scale of the challenge, as an outsider I had no prior biases to lean-on. As a result, I could ask some fundamental questions, synthesize multiple viewpoints and keep trying solutions until progress was made.
- Big picture perspective- I wasn’t caught up in the hierarchies, social rules, power networks etc of the film world. As an outsider, I could continuously discover and see the entire life-cycle of what it’d take to make and release a film. I met a lot of writers, producers and directors with unmade or unreleased films and I could learn what to avoid. This is very powerful, as you can avoid silos, validate information and not mistake the tree for the forest. It's much easier to assess the territory from the outside than when someone just hands you a map. This has happened to me in my corporate career where I mistook the map for the territory but it was the total opposite in my film career.
- Solution-oriented - A driven outsider is much more likely to hustle, muscle and get creative in finding a solution to a situation than a trained or experienced insider that has been made aware of the limitation.
- Underdog benefits- An outsider can rally other outsiders toward a shared vision. Because humans will cheer for the underdog. I was supported by a lot of amazing people who weren’t connected with the film industry but believed in the film’s story.
- Creativity- By framing problems in filmmaking from the lens of someone in the technology industry, I was able to cross-pollinate ideas such as treating the entire project as a lean startup. All outsiders come with their sets of experiences and when ideas from one field get applied into other, interesting magic can happen.
- Challenging conventional wisdom- “Why not?” is an innocent and powerful question. I was at liberty to ask this many times at various stages. Often I found the answer to be “because that’s how its done.” And in a lot of areas I could achieve the same results by doing it differently. This is a “romantic drama”, follow the format of other romantic dramas I was advised early on. You’ll see the film is anything but a romantic drama. I wanted to tell the entire story revolving around emotion of “ambiguity”- the central theme does not involve revenge, money, death, romance, underdog victory, nostalgia, greed, calamity, kidnapping, murder- emotions central to most other films.
Knowing all this now, would I do it all over again?
The answer is- when it comes to making a film, I can’t even if tried. There are of course the deep learnings of how the film industry works and my own biases from having gone through the experience but critically, the burning desire of the outsider now does not exist. Filmmaking is now demystified for me, the question I set out to answer with my movie has been addressed to my satisfaction. I can now point people to my work in film. In short, a lot of my outsider advantages are now lost. That’s not to say I haven’t gained advantages in terms of the experience but still, I am no longer a pure outsider. The curiosities of the outsider are replaced by the learnings of an insider. Learnings so deep and well-rounded that could not have been possible without the unadulterated curiosities that led to them.
The outsider advantage does not trump essential attributes like curiosity, persistence and grit- it just provides a framework and certain unspoken advantages in one’s pursuit.
"The inner fire is the most important thing mankind possesses.", Edith Södergran, Scandinavian poet
In a world where we get tied up and evaluated based on our respective fields, it is difficult to do something substantial and practical in fields that we may be interested in. We are constantly asked about prior experience or evidence of having done the same things before- the stakes are too high for most of us to venture out and make things happen in other fields.
This should not be the case. Increasingly, fields are converging and historically new ideas are built upon the combination of new ideas. Specialization is only a recent trend. While our education, laws and society adapts to this fact, our learning resources keep expanding. It's never been a better time to be an outsider.
"The tools for learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce"- Naval Ravikant on Twitter
If you are driven by curiosity and a compelling vision for how the world ought to be, harness them to move forward. Minimize your regrets and give it an honest, fair go. What have you got to lose? Outsiders are needed more than ever- to bring a fresh perspective, to challenge the status quo and to ask the all important - Why not?
Thoughts, comments, questions? I'd love to hear from you. DM me on twitter