Always Stay True to Yourself

I’ve been a filmmaker for over a decade now and have made a variety of short form work. My earlier work has been generally well received, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making them. But eventually, making films that fit inside a pre-determined genre was no longer fulfilling. So I decided to take some advice from my early film school teachers to try and really find my voice as a filmmaker. I didn’t want to simply create something that people would like — I wanted to say something about my own experience. My own hardships and triumphs so that I could connect with the people who viewed my work on a deeper level.

So in the beginning of 2015, I decided to make a film about one of my biggest personal struggles — the loss of my father.

Picture of my father from 1975

My most personal film yet and also one of the most difficult — it still fills me with a sense of disappointment. Because upon reflection, my film Control was an opportunity lost.

My father was a quiet, patient man filled with wit and biting sarcasm. He was a lawyer for the Latvian community by trade and at home always very passionate about photography — which I believe has been one of the contributing factors to my chosen career path. But for many years he struggled with alcoholism.

It wasn’t evident when I was a kid, but it became a large problem during my years in college where I bounced between living with both of my parents who had been divorced for for half a decade at that point.

From my freshman year in college until my late 20s, living with my father’s addiction involved numerous failed attempts to get him into treatment, several trips to the emergency room, and even the resignation of one behavorial psychiatrist who, after two sessions, sent an email declaring his refusal to treat my father any longer because of an upsetting conversation they’d had.

To this day I have no idea what my father might have said to cause that man resign.

But it all came to an end in 2007 when I received a phone call one snowy November day. My father was in the hospital for the final time. His body had taken enough and his kidneys were failing. I left work immediately to spend what little time I had left with him, and he passed away the next morning.

8 years later, I decided enough time had passed for me to try and make something that reflected the hardships of that event. I wrote a feature film about man spending the last night out with his dying father. Being short on resources I decided to start with a short film first. It was 15 pages with no title, about a man trying to get his father to check himself into a treatment facility because he knows it might be too late otherwise. After several drafts andmy producer found a suitable name — Control.

Still from the short film Control.

To try and distance myself from the characters and to make it a bit more interesting, I made both father and son lawyers. To keep it familiar, they would both share the same name, for which I settled on Nick. They would engage in a legal battle for the future direction of their relationship. All of which was very close to the real relationship and difficulties I had with my own dad.

But I also made another change that I would eventually regret…

I made both characters white.

The confrontation — Control

My regret for this decision has nothing to do with the casting of the actors, their performances, or their ability to represent my personal story. My regret comes entirely from the reason that I made this decision — because I was afraid of what it might say otherwise.

I first wrote the characters as being both white. But then I began to think…

If this is a story about myself, shouldn’t the main character look somewhat like myself?

I had settled on who would play the father, a fantastic actor you might have seen in Mad Men as Grandpa Jean. I consulted with both my producer and casting director about changing the ethnicity of who was to play the son. I had my casting director pull some options for biracial characters and I took a good look. But ultimately the choice was mine to make and finally I chose to keep the son the same ethnicity of the father.

The reason that I made this decision still stings every time I try to watch the movie.

I didn’t want audiences to change their perspective of what was considered normal. I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable.

So I made excuses—

“What if everyone focused on the racial aspect instead of the father and son?”

“If they’re different ethnicities and the father is an alcoholic — what was I saying about interracial families?”

But I know that deep down, I was crafting a story that an audience would already understand. Rather than crafting a story that would make the audience understand me.

The real truth of why I made this decision is simple:

I didn’t strongly consider making a character my own ethnicity because I felt the need to explain my own existence.

Growing up in Chicago, I knew that my family wasn’t the norm. There weren’t as many out there like me and in that city, people often try to force you to pick sides. There are more now and will be in the future. But those of us who are mixed are still a small sample size.

Combine that with living in foreign country for several years, many rounds of my favorite game “What Are You Exactly?”, and I was left with the feeling of not quite feeling like part of the mainstream. I told myself that I reveled in it. But when I had the opportunity with this film I was making to really embrace that notion — I failed.

This feeling is not to denigrate the actor who would be cast in the role of Junior. He’s one of the best actors that I’ve ever had the chance to work with and his work in Control was fantastic. My regret comes from my mindset in the creation of this film and how it would ultimately influence everything that came afterwards.

Making Control was difficult, as all are. But this one seemed to have an extra layer of challenge added:

I had hired the DP from my previous film — he quit.

We tried to cut the budget — we couldn’t.

We launched a crowdfunding campaign — we failed horribly.

We received funding from a third party at the last second and were able to get the film ready to shoot. We struggled through production and when I sat down to edit the film myself, like I had many times before, for the first time I would have a hard time to start looking at the footage. This process lasted for nearly a month.

We finished the film almost a year later. But I didn’t feel confident about it. We began submitting to festivals…and received rejection letters from every single one. And when I read them, beyond my disappointment…was agreement. They pointed out the same weaknesses that I did.

Most likely, I would have cast the same actors that are currently in the film. But had I began the process differently, had I been unapologetic about the potential ethnicity of the two main characters, the story would have naturally been crafted a different way.

Looking at it now, I can see the apprehension of the film and that was kept it from gaining any traction. It’s an attempt to make something personal without trying stand out — and that is one of the worse forms of art.

In the days that followed my father’s death I began the grim task of cleaning out his apartment. Being a lawyer my father saved everything — 10 year old tax returns, the closing papers from our first house, even phone bills from 1991.

One of the items I stumbled upon was an old sketchbook. I drew often when I was a kid so I thought it was one of mine he had kept inside his room. I opened and saw a signature inside the front cover:

Maris Lidaka, 1967

I never knew my father took art class in high school so I looked through the pictures and saw that my father had a talent for it. Standing up, I saw penciled sketches of abstract objects and unfinished figures.

I got to the last page and there was a note:

“There’s something that you’re trying to say. But it’s not quite there yet. Keep trying.”

I was now sitting when I saw those words written by his instructor. They made me understand a lot about my father and maybe what his quiet struggle was.

Today, I think those words were also meant for me.

Test footage from Breakaway

After nearly 3 years, I’m finally working on another film and now having been through the gauntlet — I’m ready.

Ready to speak without fear.

Ready to create without doubt.

Ready to show my point of view.

I can look at my failures and embrace them. I can make a stand and be comfortable. I can recognize my fears and avoid them.

I can even sit down this evening to watch Control, and smile at my fondest disappointment.

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