Burnout: A Starving Filmmaker's Confession
I’m going to get personal here, so bear with me…
We’ve all had our moments in life where we grow sick & tired of our current endeavors. Whether that’s your job, your hobbies, your community, hell even your passion it seems there are times where you want to throw your hands up, walk away, and become somebody else not associated with any of the above. I’ve been quiet on this thing for about 6 months now due to a serious case of burnout. There were times I came close to walking away from this project, getting a new job, leaving my life here in Columbia, SC and pursuing a boring life working 9-5 with weekends. I didn’t want to be known as “the Purple Martin Guy” or even “the Wildstein.” The weight of this project having me consistently make sacrifices and lose time, money, friendships, and fun made me feel like the titan Atlas cursed to an eternity of holding up the sky never able to have a moment for myself.
This all started when about a year ago when the Martin Landlord I was documenting was trying to get me involved as a guerilla journalist to expose her neighbors for harassing her colony. I live about an hour and a half from this landlord, so I couldn’t pick up & head over to the colony in a few minutes to film the harassment going on in person. Things got serious when the neighbors began to threaten with legal action against her colony. I would receive messages every day from this woman, afraid of losing her colony, but Martins are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act meaning there was no legal way for the neighbors to have the colony removed. This lasted about 3 months, every day. At first I was concerned, however confident in the legal protections of the birds I began not to worry about it. I gave this landlord all of the proper law enforcement agencies to contact to tell her how her birds are protected as well as news outlets to expose the harassment of her colony, still she wanted me to come & film all of this as it was going on. Add on top of that
the most successful “Busy Season” ever at the shop I work for, I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. After a month of being berated by panicked messages at odd hours of the day/night demanding my presence, I finally set the terms with my martin landlord of what I my purpose of being there was: to document her Purple Martin Season. She still didn’t adhere to them of course. Being a first time filmmaker, I didn’t, and still kinda don’t, know what I was legally allowed to film & the ramifications of filming these neighbors without their permission. Luckily the press got involved (by my tip) and the neighbors backed off. However, the Martin Landlord I was working with suddenly moved away from South Carolina with no warning as soon as the dust settled. To be fair, she had a family emergency to deal with. This was a very mentally taxing process.
After catching a break from my martin landlord, I went off on my big month-long shoot in Pennsylvania & Arizona. I was STOKED and nervous as hell. While I was out there I wouldn’t say I was stressed about Purple Haze or burnt out. I was having fun for the first time in a while. Before I left, I interviewed for a job that I really wanted that was understanding of my intention with Purple Haze. It was everything I was looking for. Great pay, great hours, I’d be doing a job that allowed me to use my full skillset rather than operating on a leash. The interview, I felt, went great. All my
credentials stacked up. I’m friends with all of the staff. It seemed like a shoe-in for me. 3 weeks later during the shoot, I get a call telling me I didn’t get the job. Talk about a monkey-wrench in the machine. Knowing that I would have to come back to my old job, where I wasn’t quite as happy, just killed me. I began to think “Is this all there is for me?”, “Is there no escape?”, and “Do I even have a future?” I have a LONG, not-so-great history with my current place of business that’s for another time. When I that final day of shooting came, I reluctantly headed home angry that I wasn’t walking into the “Dream Job” I was expecting to that following Monday.
Shortly upon my return home, I realized I had a very small, quickly closing window of opportunity. It was Purple Martin Roosting season where Martins all gather up by the thousands as they make their journey south to their Winter Range. I knew I needed to act, so I called my bosses up and explained to them the situation and for 3 weeks I went Roost-chasing. There are multiple sites across North and South America where martins gather up before they migration, known as a Migration
Roost. They’re basically pitt-stops along the route Martins will use to roost or sleep at while they’re making their ~5,000 mile trek. There were 3 roosting sites I had in mind: Shreveport LA, Manteo NC, and Erie PA. To save time at work and pay off my shoot from the previous month, I still worked normal hours & doing 2 day road trips to film at these locations. I think I logged 56 hours of drive time in a quick 2.5 weeks while still working a full-time job. Another mentally taxing process.
At this point, I was completely spent. I began to hate this project. I began to loathe. I was so ready to give up and move across the country to pursue and ecotourism job. I hated my friends, my job, my family, my hobbies, everything. I’m guessing this is what a Mid-life Crisis feels like? I was not in a healthy spot to say the least. I knew I had to keep going, I just didn’t want to. I wanted to give up. I knew I couldn’t because I had too much & time invested in this, as well as that punk kid who made the promise to himself to accomplish the things he says he’s going to (me) constantly reminding me of that promise. Not only that, but everyone who has generously donated to the making of this film. I couldn’t turn my back on them, so on I went.
The last BIG hurdle I’ve had to deal with for this project, was my shoot in Brazil. Months prior, I found out my second-shooter informed me of a trip to Israel his family surprised him with smack in the middle of the shoot planned for Brazil. Totally understandable, but now my number 2 was out
for the biggest shoot of this whole thing that we’d been planning for 3 years. Also, the way filming in Brazil works, is you have to partner with a national production company. I had that part covered, but you have to apply for a visa to be able to enter the country: a process that takes about a month. I got the point where I had all of my paperwork set to turn into the Brazilian government to apply for my visa, but I was still missing a shooter. As I was locking down my shooter, we got to the holidays and the absolute latest date possible for me to submit my paperwork. This whole process of working with international governments was a cool experience, but the stress of lining everything up to where I wouldn’t break any laws & be stuck in a Brazilian jail helpless shaved a couple years off my life and added a few gray hairs to my beard. That stress didn’t let up until I made contact with the research team we were working with the first day in Brazil.
Back in October, a photographer for Joel Sartore came & spoke at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia. In the Q&A at the end of his talk, I asked “How do you keep from burning out?” He replied with “You can’t have any quit in ya. If you don’t tell these stories, if you don’t spotlight these animals, then
who will know about them?” It definitely was a gut-check. A few weeks after that event, I received an email from Joel himself telling me “It's important in these times to keep going, as in, never give up. You sure seem to have what it takes. Keep going.” It was then that I knew I was the only one that could tell this story at the volume it needs to be told at. The weight of this story started feeling like the sky again, but having my hero tell me that it seems to him that I can accomplish a feat like this really gave me the boost I needed.
I say all of this not to gain your sympathy nor to bitch & moan about “how hard my life is.” This has been the most trying time of my life, but I wouldn’t trade any of it. This film has stretched & flexed & broken me in so many ways over the past 3 years and my mettle is all the more because of it. This process has taught me that I am capable. I never used to believe in myself before this project and if it weren’t for the people that got behind me starting out, I most certainly would never have made to this point. This whole process has taught me to be patient as your dreams take time to accomplish, courage when the odds aren’t looking favorable, and perseverance knowing that the fruits of your labor pay off when the harvest comes.
All that said, you all deserve to hear about the adventures I’ve been on lately chasing these birds and you will have them.