How a filmmaker survives drowning

An overhead view of the crystal clear blue water of a swimming pool

I was maybe three or four the first time I nearly drowned.

Many of the details of that day have faded. But the few that survive still bother me when I’m in water.

We were at a party. My mother’s coworker was throwing a BBQ. In the above-ground pool out back, I had floaties around both of my biceps. Much of the time, I maintained a grip on the surrounding deck, but at some point, I drifted away from the edge.

Suddenly there was hissing, and half of my body began to sink. Looking to my left, my floaty was losing air.

I must have been alone in the water because there was no one who came immediately to my aid. I started shouting. I began trashing. But both only aided the air’s escape from the floaty and brought me no closer to the safety of the deck.

It felt like forever before a body hit the water beside me and grabbed ahold of me, pulling me to safety.

We left soon after.

I was twenty-two when I nearly drowned the second time.

Of course, the circumstances were much different.

I was in college and I was working on my final film project. In my apartment were actors and actresses, along with the largest crew I had ever assembled.

Despite having spent the entire day filming productively, we were behind schedule. There were essential scenes still needing to be filmed, yet I was facing the loss of an actor to a scheduling conflict.

I was drowning - figuratively.

But, unlike the last time, I didn’t shout. I didn’t thrash. Instead, I laid down.

Yep, that’s right. I laid down on the landing in my apartment building’s staircase. And with my DP and producer on the stairs beside me, we sat quietly to think while the crew took a break with the actors inside.

Without the actress, we were at risk of missing a key two-page scene. In it, the actress and the lead actor would discuss the end of their relationship. How could the movie work without it?

With my eyes closed, I watched the film in my mind and began to rewrite and edit. What felt like an essential scene was really just the best scene I could come up with at the time of writing. Making this movie wasn’t an exercise in filming Shakespeare - this was my own writing. I could rewrite it. I could adapt. I could survive this.

Aided by my collaborators, we began to brainstorm our solution. And it dawned on us. The two pages of “essential” dialogue were narrative overkill. There was no need for such dialogue. Being a movie, we could rely on the image and the sound to do all the hard work without all the dialogue.

Our solution was simple. All we’d need to do was record an off-camera line from our actress. Then, while editing, we could use the line to place the actress outside the door of the apartment, offscreen, accompanied by a knock at the door. We’d never see her, and we’d know the main character was through with his relationship when he didn’t open the door to let her in.

Problem solved.

It’s a hard lesson to learn not to thrash and shout when you’re near drowning. Instead, my experience tells me it's better not to panic, and instead conserve all the energy towards productive ends - survival.

I’ve found myself in similar situations over the years: sequences have gone offline during tight delivery schedules, cameras have gone dead during key scenes, and talent has refused direction. In all cases, it’s been better to stop and slow down rather than thrash. In the calm, my mind has taken the time to process the situation. And when given the space, the mind has provided better solutions than initial instincts offered.

Better to take the time to end up back on dry land than quickly act and end up below the waves.

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