(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

The indirect director

I have a successful film career, but when people ask me what I do I just mumble

Cary Tennis
December 6, 2012 6:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Beginning a sentence with "I" makes me self-conscious. This, I usually manage to overcome.

I have what I’ve come to realize is a severe self-deprecation problem, which is increasingly becoming a major hindrance to my career.

I am a filmmaker. I have been working in the field since I was a teenager and have generally been a reasonably successful film and television editor. When I was a 17-year-old film student I discovered I had a knack for the craft, and while my aspirations resided in directing my own work, I decided to passionately pursue editing, understanding that I would be able to make a living at it with more ease than I would with directing. This practical attitude may have sown the seed of my downfall.


I spent years working extremely hard and became very skilled at editing. I am also good at getting work at it. I am able to sit at an interview and make myself seem very competent and confidently make it known that I know my stuff, that I am the right person to do the job. And it works. But like soooo - I’m kind of over editing. I’ve done it for 17 years without stopping, and I am feeling a strong urge to move forward, progress, climb.

Throughout the years I always directed projects. Sometimes as actual jobs but mostly on the side. Short films, music videos, I even made my first feature film recently that has been doing decently well at film festivals and has been loved by many people who saw it. And in the few instances I actually had a directing job (usually they fell in my lap almost accidentally) the client was very happy.

My point is: I’m a competent director, sometimes I do excellent work, sometimes I do decent work - but I can objectively say that most of the time it is above average, and at a competitive level.


But for the life of me, I can’t take a fucking compliment. When told I do a good job on something, I look at the floor and utter a faint "thank you" and I feel empty inside, my stomach feels funny and if the person keeps telling me how much they enjoyed my work my knees might start weakening. I don’t run away screaming. I stay and talk and answer questions, but mostly I look at the floor while doing so and I think "let this be over." Put me in a Q&A in front of an audience, and I’m a disaster. I stare at the floor. I want nothing more than to leave the room and get dinner.

Let it be known that in a work situation, I can talk to even 100 people with authority and be perfectly comfortable in doing so. When directing a project, I am confident in my communication and I do the work well.

It’s selling myself as a director that is for some reason tremendously hard for me. Even when having lunch with someone who excitedly likes my work, I will inevitably un-excite them by speaking quietly, looking at my food and telling them how bad I am at selling myself. I whine. I whine like a little whimpering cat and I don’t know why I do it. When someone asks me what I do I look at the floor and say "I work in film and TV" or "I’m an editor and director" and say the word "director" at a decibel level of minus 300. I turn people off that way and I know I’m doing it when I do it. I have many ideas that excite me, that I can execute well, and I am often unable to tell people about them properly. By people I mean producers, agents, possible investors or potential partners. I cannot sell myself as a person of ideas and as a person who is good at the craft of directing.


I watch other filmmakers less skilled than I P.R. themselves with tenacity and fervor and it makes me crazy. I ask myself "why am I not able to do this, with my work which is BETTER!!!" And then I wonder if it really is better and I start thinking maybe it actually is terrible and then I just become absurd.

I’m normal-looking, I don’t smell, my teeth are fine, I have no acne, I have had a very good upbringing, nobody ever told me I suck. I have had nothing but support. I’m a very lucky asshole. Yet I block myself. And notice how many times I wrote "I can’t" in this letter. It’s almost like an innate instinct to say "I can’t do this" -- which is in complete contradiction to my personality, which is generally can-do-y, motivated and aggressive. And I even KNOW that I CAN do the work! I even made my own independent feature film, which required a massive, aggressive effort to make.


How well do you think I’ve been doing with getting my film anywhere? Not so good. Because I can’t (can’t can’t can’t can’t fucking can’t) speak to anyone at eye level about it and tell them why it’s great.

How do I overcome this?



The Un-Direct Director

Dear Un-Direct Director,

Your reluctance to use the first-person singular pronoun in reference to your own accomplishments and occupation is a phenomenon keenly familiar to this writer who nevertheless, as much published work will attest, has largely -- some might say excessively and with unbecoming zeal -- overcome it in recent years and is only now, for the sake of entertainment, engaging in a little contest with himself to see how far he can go without referring to himself in the good old first-person singular.


Not very long, apparently.

When this column began, certain principles were followed and believed to be useful, among them the principle that what would be offered was not so much advice and instruction as sharing of common experience, it having become apparent that someone who has had similar or analogous experiences has a special advantage in speaking with credibility about personal problems of any complexity. That is, to gain the trust of another person it is helpful to have shared personal experience, i.e., the 12 steps, one addict sharing personal experience with another, etc.

In other words, regarding this tendency to mumble and look at one's shoes when asked "What do you do?": I get it. I've been there. I do that.

So I suggest this: When asked what you do, try saying simply, "I am a lover of film."


And when your interrogator replies acidly, "Well, dude, I love film too, but I mean what do you do for a living?" say, "Well, not to be evasive, my good sir, but this love of film has dictated pretty much every job I've ever had since I was 17 and  'Braveheart' won the Academy Award for best picture  instead of, for heaven's sake, 'Apollo 17' or even 'Sense and Sensibility' ... and not only that but Mel Gibson won for best director. Can you believe that? Mel Gibson? It was a different time. What were you doing in 1995, anyway?"

Notice you are telling a bit about yourself but then shifting away.

Remember: You are not under oath. You can say anything you want. If more of us claimed to be firemen or butlers conversations would become less dull.

Besides, saying, "I'm a film director" raises difficulties for others who are not film directors. Being a film director is a high-status occupation. So it sets off little status alarms in other status-conscious men, who will either challenge your status by naming an even higher-status occupation or shrink and roll into a small dark corner of the kitchen.


When somebody asks me, "What do you do?" I'm tempted to say, "I mumble," because that is generally what I will be doing at that precise moment. But I think a good response for me, actually, would be to say, "I am a lover of words." For in the same way that your love of film has influenced most all the work you have done, my love of words has indeed influenced pretty much every job I've ever had and is also the reason for my marriage and my current job and where I live and pretty much everything else about me, including in how I was raised. So if anybody's genuinely curious about who you are, a good rule of thumb is to reply by naming the things you love. The things you love will often take you toward a profession, so that question will probably get answered along the way, if it must be answered.

In fact, this might be good for many people. For instance, "I am a lover of health and well-being, and I help people recover from disease," might be something a doctor could say. Or a cop could say, "I'm a lover of orderly, law-abiding society and I spend my days protecting innocent people and enforcing the law and hanging out with my buddies at cheap burger joints."

Maybe we all ought to try to give some color to the bland descriptions we often feel forced to give ourselves. We could replace the word "am," as in "I am a film director" with "love," as in "I am a lover of film," so that our words are filled not with the monotony of job description but with the emotion of our dreams, our history and our personal aspirations.

Cary Tennis

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