PSYCH OUT: Pamela Hirsch
Psych Out is an ongoing series on the topic of fear & creativity.
In response to many of our readers expressing that fear often blocked their creative flow, Seymour asked a variety of entrepreneurs and artists to share their experience in their own words. Discover how they get over anxiety and self-doubt and find the strength to move forward with their projects.
Pamela Hirsch is a NYC-based producer with close to two decades of experience in the film industry. She has produced over 2 dozen films, and has screened at every prestigious major film festival – both domestic and international (Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Tribeca). After producing several films on her own, she joined Plum Pictures in 2006, while there producing 13 films in 4 years. She went on to found NAKED CITY FILMS, which she now runs. Hirsch has worked with some the world’s finest filmmakers, including John Cameron Mitchell, Mira Nair, the Hughes Brothers, Brad Anderson, Brett Ratner, Yvan Attal, Berman & Pulcini, among others. Her company, NAKED CITY FILMS also recently produced the Noam Chomsky documentary REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival 2015. She is currently producing CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, written and to be directed by Nicole Holofcener, as well as THE OPTIMIST, which she will be producing with Nina Tassler.
Recently, Hirsch produced MILES AHEAD – an impressionistic tribute to the life and spirit of Miles Davis – directed by Don Cheadle (Sony Pictures Classics). We asked Pam to tell us a bit about this experience from an unusual perspective, exploring the notion of anxiety and the role it plays in the filmmaking process. She delivered a powerful personal essay about her own experience that we feel will resonate with anyone who has ever embarked on an exciting and ambitious project.
Take A Beat
by Pamela Hirsch
My husband and I were in the parking lot of Ikea when I realized the magnitude of my anxiety.
We had been sitting in the car for 20 minutes, but I couldn’t move. I was spinning out about something I may have said wrong on a phone call with a director the previous day. I was sick to my stomach, going over and over the one sentence within a two hour call, yelling at my husband that he couldn’t understand. He responded, with immense frustration and anger, “Why can’t you just choose to not be anxious?!” It was just a few weeks before I would embark on a four year journey producing the film ‘Miles Ahead.’
That day my husband realized that anxiety is not a choice. And that day I knew I needed a new way to manage my anxiety and navigate through my fear. I needed to take control of the monster that had controlled me in many ways since I was born. Anxiety may not be a choice, but my relationship with it is.
When you’re a film producer you handle millions of dollars and deal with hundreds of people. You push the natural limits of your body, brain, and emotions. The level of stress and tenacity involved in making a movie is unique to the film business, particularly in independent filmmaking, where there is simply never enough money to accomplish what we strive for. We do it anyway. We basically do the impossible. We build small villages, and then tear them down. It’s a wonder that I, with my struggles with anxiety, would choose such a profession, but I think it chose me.
In the not so distant past, I believed my anxiety would help me on the job. I thought the stomach-turning fear of what could go wrong would make me cross every “t” and dot every “i.” I thought dread and ruminating, obsessive thoughts were tools to ensure I was considering every possible outcome and every risk involved, allowing me to avoid failures and guarantee success. And, certainly, part of that is true.
But it’s also the same neurosis that prevented me from achieving true success. It’s the same fear that assumed I would ultimately fail, that I would never make it. It’s the same anxiety that stopped me from hearing people and alternatives to dilemmas. It’s the same fear that drove me to aggression and anger – because it’s easier to feel anger than fear. It’s the same anxiety that woke me up in the middle of the night worried about something I may have said in a conversation five years earlier. It prevented me from feeling confident in situations that were on the right course, and from having the courage to tackle situations that were risky or challenging. It prevented me from feeling self-assured and self-reliant, feeling hopeful, positive and, ultimately, happy.
When my agent gave me the script for ‘Miles Ahead’ 4 years ago, I was blown away. It was everything you look for in a script, and everything I thought a film about Miles Davis should be. It was entertaining and energetic, beautiful and musical, and the furthest thing from a traditional biopic. It was explosive, bold, brave and risky. And it was a completely insane undertaking.
I was the one that said, “There’s a way to make this film and I’m the one to do it.” Just like that, I was in charge of making Don Cheadle’s passion project a reality – a project he’d been trying to realize for 5 years. If there was ever a time to have my anxiety skyrocket, it would be on this film.
The stakes were high.
I didn’t want to let my agent down. I didn’t want to let Don down. I didn’t want to let Miles down! And, perhaps most importantly, I didn’t want to let myself down, and continue with that familiar feeling of ‘losing’ to my anxiety. Not with this project. It was too good. It was too important.
So I chose — yes, chose — a way to distance myself from my fear. I slowed down. I made time my friend, and cherished it. I had always been so fast and quick, so eager to get my thoughts out of my head. I started to be disciplined about not mentally rushing, about not saying the first thing that came into my mind. I knew I couldn’t stop thinking – but I could control the feelings and actions associated with my thoughts.
I took beats before reacting. Pauses before explaining.
I took time before defending myself. I waited before jumping in when I didn’t understand something or disagreed with someone.
I have failed many times in the past with this practice, but something clicked in this attempt. When I allowed myself the time and space to listen, I realized I simply didn’t need to be defensive all the time. I realized I didn’t always need to react. And I realized I didn’t always disagree. My body, my mind, and my heart all started catching on to the peace and success that would follow the situations when I was willing to pause.
‘Miles Ahead’ was the most professionally challenging project I have ever done. We cycled through directors and multiple failed financing scenarios. We were missing a piece of the casting puzzle, and people wanted me off the project so they could get closer to the director. I had no assurances that this film would actually get made, and I wasn’t getting paid a cent.
These obstacles consistently provoked my anxiety and required me to stay focused, hard-working, present, and engaged. I fought to keep pushing forward, continue coming up with alternative production plans, and to stay positive.
I wrestled constantly with my fear. Some days I was on top; some days it was on top. When I would fail, I would react. I would take things personally. I would get angry. I would see the difference, loud and clear, when I didn’t take the time, or the breath, or the beat. My anxiety would win. But I kept practicing my method: take time. Take it slow. Take a beat. Take it down a notch. Check myself.
Then financing came through, but the budget was too high, the script too expensive, the shoot location unknown, the schedule unmanageable. Yet instead of more doubt, fear, and anxiety, I felt primed and ready to do what I do, without the usual knot in my stomach, or the usual weight pulling me down. I had been preparing for this moment for the last two years.
The production challenges were profound, but not due to the usual culprits of bad weather, inexperienced crew, or weak actors (we actually had the most passionate crew and talented actors). Rather, it was Don’s first time in the director’s chair of a feature film — and he happened to be the lead actor, the writer, and my producing partner.
We knew how insane it was to have Don both direct and act, and a first for me as well to have my director in front of the camera, not behind it. But I understood, with every fiber of my being, how important this was for Don, and fixated on supporting him in the Herculean task at hand. This was my guiding light – I knew I had to succeed in order to allow him to succeed. With this in mind, ever so slowly, ‘Miles Ahead’ became my coach and guide in working through my anxiety. I couldn’t let it win. Failure was not an option – not for Don, not for Miles, not for me.
We set out on this odyssey, holding its fate in our hands as we cast it, located it, crewed it, prepped it, whacked it, shot it, stroked it, purified it, found it, re-shot it, cut it, compressed it, shampooed it, enhanced it, sped it up, slowed it down, distilled it, mixed it, colored it, curled it, tuned it, lulled it, scored it, and finally locked it. We accomplished what we set out to do. Don made the film he wanted to make. And it’s pretty badass.
The pride I feel for ‘Miles Ahead’ is immeasurable. It’s big and broad. It reaches all parts of me. My director pushed me, leaned on me, challenged me, relied on me to be better. He raised my game as a producer. But as a champion and a conqueror of my fear and anxiety? That was all me. Wrestling, twisting, squashing, deafening, reverberating, and winning, on my own.
It will never come from someone else, or from allowances made by others. Overcoming fear and anxiety is a constant, personal, and individual struggle. It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Some people puff up; some people shut down. Some get angry and mean; others can’t get out of bed for weeks. Some get overbearing and aggressive; others become paralyzed.
In any circumstance, anxiety can be an obstacle to reaching your goals, success, and true happiness. It takes practice and time to figure it out. It never fully disappears and it never quits. It just starts losing the battles. And you end up winning the war.
Published: March 17th, 2016