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What to Do When Failure Strikes

These were the obstacles we faced; understandable and inevitable roadblocks that are the cornerstones of a project built on ambition, drive, and fortitude.

When I was 15 years old I set out to accomplish what I felt was an impossible project – and I labelled it as such. My goal – or dream, for those more inclined to poetry and whimsy – was to write, direct, and produce a narrative feature film with a large ensemble cast, multiple locations, complicated character arcs, and a sweeping plot.

And I put that plan into motion. I rallied a small crew of ambitious, creatively inclined classmates and put a strategic schedule into play. Using the media networks of my small hometown, I built awareness and anticipation for my project. We were in every newspaper and on every radio station multiple times over the months that followed. The plan was a “ground-breaking” movie that would highlight the lives and struggles of teenagers written and produced by youth in a way that no Hollywood movie could ever replicate. That, alone, was enough to hook people and create an allure that made people want to be involved. By July of 2006 we were in production with an ambitious 45 day shooting schedule. We had a crew of around 10 to 15 people and a cast (with volunteer background extras) of around 100 people. We shot and shot and shot and shot for day after day after hot, summer day.

It was exhilarating. We felt like we were doing something important. We felt as though what we were doing would make an impact; that what we were doing was for something. And it was coming together rather well. For a screenplay that was over 120 pages (over two hours in screen-time), we were, at the end of the day, getting it done. It wasn’t without its challenges and roadblocks of course. We were 15 and 16 and tackling long day after long day. We were exhausted. The scope of the project seemed huge to us. It was difficult not just from a creative standpoint but from a logistical one as well. There were technical problems, weather delays, problems with locations, schedules of cast members—all of this led to a very draining, albeit fulfilling and challenging summer for a group of teenagers in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

One thing we routinely struggled with was getting people to volunteer their time on a regular basis. We were making a movie that took place in a high school, filming it in the halls and classrooms of an actual school, during the notoriously busy summer months—when the school was stark empty and teens my age were on vacation with their families or getting their feet wet in a summer job.

As the weeks waned and we pushed forward in our schedule, shoots got delayed or rescheduled and our 45-day shooting schedule slowly expanded into 50 and then 52 and then 55. People who had initially given me their word and commitment dropped out or became unreliable with their schedule—sometimes at no fault of their own. I recall heading to the school for a scene in which one of the school bullies antagonized and ridiculed a student with a physical disability. My actor—we’ll call him Tim—(who was, himself, in a wheelchair) was on board with the scene from the get-go and even had a say in the writing of it based on some of his own experiences. But there I was, at the school, with my cast, crew and equipment and no Tim. He was nowhere to be seen. No matter how we tried to get in touch with him, we came up dry. Nothing. And as the hours of the day went on, it became clear that Tim was not going to show. Maybe he had forgotten. Maybe he decided, in retrospect, the project wasn’t for him. Who knows. I never heard or saw from him again and the scene had to be rewritten on the fly.

These were the obstacles we faced; understandable and inevitable roadblocks that are the cornerstones of a project built on ambition, drive, and fortitude. But they were nothing in comparison to the roadblock we encountered towards the end of our summer—when our energy was at its lowest and the light at the end of the tunnel seemed far away despite how close it really was.

I had written a scene that was particularly ambitious in an already very ambitious project; a high school dance, with multiple, inter-twining plot lines character arcs, hundreds of background extras and a shot list and storyboard sequence big enough to fill a book. It was an impossible project in and of itself, yet it was only a small chapter of the bigger goal.

But it was the night prior that made things take a sudden turn for the worst.

We knew this scene was coming and the struggle of getting background extras to volunteer their time for a simple classroom scene made us hyper-aware of how challenging it would be to get at least a hundred—if not more—out to fill a gymnasium for the dance. And so we started early. Throughout the summer, after coming home from a day of filming, my crew and I would email people we knew and mutual friends encouraging them to come and help out for a day at the end of August. If a volunteer had already been out and seemed to have enjoyed themselves, we did our best to lock them in for the dance.

Slowly but surely, our projected number of potential people was growing and seemed rather promising until the day of the dance had finally arrived. But it was the night prior that made things take a sudden turn for the worst. It was on that night, while shooting a scene, that I discovered I had run out of tape. Back then we were yet to move into the age of digital capture. A local TV production company had sponsored us (due to my personal connections volunteering for them and the press we had obtained leading up to our shoot). The cameras were of a TV broadcast quality and make and required a special tape to record onto that was unavailable over the counter at most standard photography, film and camera gear stores. And yes, I had run out. Over the course of a few minutes, the realization of what this meant became more clear. It was a Friday night. The dance was happening the following morning—early, at 8AM on a Saturday. The TV Production Company was closed for the weekend and a couple of phone-calls confirmed that the producers at the station (and my points of contact) were unavailable or, at the very least, not answering their calls. Sorting through the tapes in my camera case, I did the math and came to the conclusion that, were we to tape over anything, we would lose weeks and weeks of footage. In just a few days, the summer would be over. Everyone would be back at school. Schedules would change. Back-to-school haircuts, alone, would make continuity a nightmare.

The plan was to forge ahead. Push on. Wake up.

Over 100 teens were expected to arrive at the school the next morning. One of the local Radio DJs was planning on attending, DJing the dance and making a camera in the film as a sort of co-op promo effort. I couldn’t cancel. Too much was at stake. We had to find a tape. There was no other option. My parents and I spent the evening driving around time, visiting every camera store we could. No matter our efforts, we came up short.

The plan was to forge ahead. Push on. Wake up. Go to the school. Start setting up the scene and put everyone to work. In the meantime, my parents (God bless them) would continue searching for a tape by whatever means possible—and yes, they continued to try and reach the TV producers to no success.

To make matters even stickier, when I arrived at the school that Saturday morning I was shocked to see that the floors of the gymnasium had been freshly waxed. A large sign on the door saying “KEEP OUT, WET WAX” made the pit in my stomach seemingly drop to my feet. The Universe was surely conspiring against me and doing everything possible to ensure this scene did not happen. In a bold act of stubborn defiance, I checked over my shoulder, then removed the sign and carefully stepped onto the glistening wood floor. It seemed dry. The sign must have been a few days old. No worries at all.

Over the course of an hour, the extras began to arrive and the shiny, freshly waxed floors of the gymnasium were marked by the rubber of sneakers as kids gathered and socialized on the floor. It was summer camp x10 with bags strewn everywhere and kids talking and playing games in tiny cliques. My crew was busy setting up, decorating the gym with streamers and balloons—a poor man’s semi-formal on a definite budget. The Radio DJ arrived with his gear in tow and he began setting up. My forehead was wet with sweat. I was on the phone constantly, checking in with my parents every 15 minutes. Any luck? No, they said.

I made a decision that still gives me a heavy pit in the bottom of my stomach to this day.

To make matters worse, we were spotted by the custodial staff who immediately rained down the fear of God on me. “What are you doing?”, the Head Custodian had said, “These floors are wet!”

“They were wet,” I assured, “They’re dry now.” He stormed off to make a few phone-calls and the pressure was mounting.

Finally, at 10 in the morning, two hours after my extras had arrived (who had been growing antsy by the minute), I made a decision that still gives me a heavy pit in the bottom of my stomach to this day. We couldn’t film.

Alerting my crew to the situation, I then proceeded to climb up to the balcony overlooking the hundred or so students in the gymnasium floor. Cupping my hands over my mouth, I grabbed their attention.

“Thank you so much for coming out today and giving up your day to help us out,” I said, “Unfortunately we’ve run into some technical difficulties (my poor planning and judgment!) and can no longer film today. We have to send you all home.”

There was a huge groan from the crowd and the chatter immediately resumed. I watched as the radio DJ packed up his things, shaking his head. I had wasted his time.

Once the teens left, my crew and I were the only ones left and we proceeded to pack up the equipment and tear down the decorations. I felt awful. I felt like I had let everyone down and worse—it had all been because of a silly, preventable, embarrassing mistake.

The custodians watched us as we wiped up every last scuff mark and then we left. I wanted to quit the project. I was the leader of this endeavor and I had wasted the time of hundreds of people for a shoot that was supposed to be a monumental achievement in the summer of a group of teens—but wasn’t. It was a failure.

How do we bounce back from these roadblocks or blunders? How do we face failure when it does happen? Do we cower and avoid the ramifications of such a breakdown or do we stand tall and assume responsibility?

For two days after that botched shoot, I cowered and avoided. I cancelled two more days of shoots (small scenes, but it set us back even more) and stayed in bed, not wanting to talk to anyone or deal with anything. I wanted the project to go away on its own.

But these things don’t go away. They remain. The ripple effects of our good decisions and bad decisions; or successes and failures, they remain—and that’s okay. We make it okay by assuming responsibility for where we go right and where we go wrong. When you assume responsibility, you immediately begin moving towards a solution. And so, after two days of self-pity and the mourning of a project that wasn’t yet finished, I finally assumed responsibility. Making a few phone-calls and sending a few emails, I rallied the crew back together and on Day 55 of what would end up being a 57-day shoot, we returned to the gymnasium (with remarkable and unprecedented permission from the custodial staff) and re-shot the failed dance. We didn’t have as many people as we did on our initial attempt, but we made it work and we pulled the scene off. Two days later, we finished the movie.

This is a story I always go back to—and I’ve had many more failures since then, some of which I will share on this blog. Assuming responsibility with an obstacle, roadblock, or full on failure is one of the best and healthiest ways to acknowledge it and work at finding solution. In the risks you take, don’t be afraid to experience those failures as they will happen. Instead, embrace them as part of the journey and go back to the drawing board. Don’t ask why it happened. Ask how and begin to uncover a way to move forward.

- Nick


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