The Answer Is in the Questions

This is a guest post by Erika McGrath.

I do not have all the answers. Or should I say, I do not have all the right answers. Maybe there’s no one with the right answers? Ahh, yes. That’s it. Nobody has all the right answers.

I am days away from beginning principal photography on Half Life, my first go at directing a narrative. And just in case I forgot that I was making an independent film, the universe was able to drum up two significant and totally unrelated events in the past 48 hours just to remind me. First, one of our crew members was arrested. Second, we were sold down the river when our equipment rental house completely backed out on the production. While getting arrested is no barrel of laughs, being three days from getting the first shot off and suddenly having no equipment lined up has been the real catastrophe. Just to put any producer who might be reading this at ease, the tough got going and in less than eight hours we were able to set up accounts with three new vendors, adjust our insurance, secure all the equipment we needed, and lay out a new travel plan.

That said, I find myself back inside a truth I came to know several years ago, which is, the best and most important thing you could do in any given situation is listen with vigilance and ask all of the right questions. However, more often than not, I find myself pursuing the right answers—the clear and exact opposite of said lesson I fought so hard to learn. Solving problems, finding solutions, fixing anything, making everything OKAY—all seems to be in the “Answer” business, don’t ya think? Well, not really. No answer will fit just right until all the questions have been tested. The answer is in the questions.

We find Gary, the lead character in Half Life, in a similar position–pursuing a path toward something he can’t quite get a grip on and along the way he is thrown up and down and then straight into living his way through all the questions. This is an experience commonly referred to as “being tested.” At the beginning of the film, Gary seems content; everything in his life is pretty peachy. Little by little, he starts to see fractures from his past, new ones creeping in, each one unto itself not so damaging, but all together, they break his world wide open. Now, Gary is standing in the middle of a wide open pile of broken pieces, staring at it saying, “What the hell? Where was the wrong turn? How do I put it all back together and make it work again? Is there a different way to do this? A better way? A truer way?” Well, my advice to Gary—Go climb a tree.

There are many different ways to climb a tree. As a kid, I took every chance I had to get up in one of those beasts. The thing to remember as you climb, no matter which way you take them on, each branch and each step will have its own set of challenges and its own set of consequences. Standing around staring up into the leafy green unknown, trying to figure out which combination of challenges and consequences will be the least damaging or difficult, just keeps you on the ground. You’ll never get anywhere by trying to figure it all out before you start. And, as my grandmother always reminded me, if you stand there looking up at the sky with your mouth hanging open, a sharp shootin’ bird will probably come along and poop in it.

Some of you might be saying, “Girl, get real. Clearly you’re up in a tree right now and too far off the ground to see what is really happening.” Okay sure… you might be right. But I’ll say this, the tree I’m climbing is an ancient oak and its roots are deeper in the ground than any of us probably ever will be. The tree will let you know what you need to know; you’ll feel it every time the wind blows. Yes, the climb is dangerous and scary—at times you’ll feel lost and unsure of your next move, your feet will slip, your hands will lose grip, you’ll get a few cuts and take a few knocks. But, if you keep your head up and remember what you’re there for, listening for signals each step of the way, you’ll find what you need and you’ll make your way to peer out over the tippy, uneasy top. What that looks like? Well, I don’t know; I imagine it looks different for everybody. I’ll let you know when I get there. And if I do, you’ll see it in Half Life.

To come out of this analogy and into real tactics, the message I want to share with you here is that the answers are relative and none of them are stopping points. Every answer you land on will still contain questions, whether or not you acknowledge them, that will lead you to your next step. The experience of making a movie is bigger than the sum of its parts. As a director, I think we have to accept that the film is bigger than us; most everything is beyond your control after a certain point. At that turn, it’s our job to listen to the film and let it become what it wants to be. The right questions are your guideposts. They will save you in times of reeling panic and maybe keep you from passing out. My wise assistant director, Chi Laughlin, reminds me daily, “Whatever your movie needs will happen… just maybe not the way you expected.” And that brings me to the last piece of advice I’ll bother you with—Nobody can make a movie alone. So, I say, gather around people who will work hard, tell truths, make you laugh, dance a little—And listen.


Erika McGrath is currently developing her first feature length picture and is in production for her short film Half Life, which  was successfully crowd funded on Seed&Spark this summer. When not making movies, she is also an active dog lover, motorcycle rider and pie enthusiast. Born and raised in Ohio, McGrath now resides in New York City.

  • Best of luck to you Erika. I can’t wait to see this.