SNL Editor Adam Epstein: Self-Doubt is a Creative Person's Friend
My mother is very good at crossword puzzles. I’m sure she’d argue with the specifics, but in my mind she’s completed every New York Times puzzle over the past 30 years. Yet whenever she starts a new one, even though her track record says otherwise, she’ll remark in dismay how “This one is impossible” and how she “Might as well give up. You don’t understand Adam, I know none of these.” But after some time, “KUDU” will cross “ETUI” and the conceit of the puzzle will reveal itself to be fish-puns based on Elliot Gould films (“Ah, it’s ‘CARPricorn One’”), and lo, all is right with the world.
Her doubt in the seemingly predictable outcome would always baffle me, yet I’ve come to see it as not only understandable, but necessary.
A constant refrain of, "This is impossible and I'm screwed and they're finally going to see me for the fraud I am" plays lightly in the background.
In my own work, before the start of a project, no matter how many times a similar one has been successful, or how many accolades have been received, lying somewhere beneath the confidence that all will be well is a kernel of self-doubt and paranoia. It's a tiny, green-pea-under-40-mattresses type of thing, but it's always there, burrowing through the protective padding you've accumulated through years of work, subtly bruising whatever ego you've tried to make solid. The pampered chick in the fairy tale couldn't fall asleep -- not because she was a princess, but more likely because there was an upcoming deadline she had to hit and she had no idea where things were going. Should have gone with the Baldacchino Supreme!
How to start filling in a blank canvas, where to place the first clip on an empty timeline window, what to write for the next few sentences IN THIS COLUMN!?! The mind races. A constant refrain of, "This is impossible and I'm screwed and they're finally going to see me for the fraud I am" plays lightly in the background. But hey! The next few sentences in this column came out fine! Though the self-reflexiveness was a little hacky. As it was with that one. Uh oh. And the refrain begins once more.
Anyone, especially those working in creative fields, who isn't motivated to some degree, even on a subconscious level, by fear or the thought that they're about to be outed as a phony, is either lying to themselves or is a psychopath. Confidence untempered by some degree of uncertainty is not only delusional, but in my mind a recipe for complacency and blandness. “A Recipe for Complacency and Blandness” is also an unreleased 1984 Merchant Ivory film.
Ideally, a never-ending seesaw between skepticism and self-assurance exists, one side continually counterbalancing the other. “We’re fucked!” should constantly be in tight orbit with “We’re fine!” and vice versa. At SNL, the film pieces I work on tend to be shot on Friday, frequently bleeding into Saturday morning, giving the post-production side often less than 24 hours to have everything cut, mixed, graphic’ed, approved, unapproved, frame-fucked, shot-swapped, re-approved, exported and ready for air. It’s our tribute to a cocaine-ier time.
The director, the DP, the producer – everyone I work with is an established, immensely talented professional. We rely on one another and have faith in each other’s ability to execute and deliver. In the time I’ve been working there, I’ve been a part of more than 60 pieces, and we haven’t missed a deadline. And yet, every week, even though I “know” we’ll be fine, even if it’s just for the briefest of moments, there’s an unspoken, underlying zap of dread where a million nightmare scenarios play out in my head simultaneously, over the course of milliseconds.
“We’re not gonna make it in time. And it’ll be because of me. Or we’ll make it but it won’t be funny and the cut won’t work. And it won’t work because of me. Or it will be funny, but the right people won’t find it funny, and then the piece will be screwed. They’ll scan the room, they’ll see me in the corner chewing on my Wacom stylus, and they’ll know. Then I’ll be dead. Well, we’ll all be dead at some point. The Earth is going to be swallowed by the Sun if we play this out long enough. But SNL will probably still be on though, so I’ll still feel bad.”
Creative self-doubt and uncertainty should be used as a both springboard and a dampener.
Then the coffee comes, and I snap out of it, and remember that we’ve done this before, many times, sometimes to acclaim – there’s that ego! -- and lo, all is right with the world. Ho, kindly interns – whiskey and song for all!
Creative self-doubt and uncertainty should be used as a both springboard and a dampener: A fight-or-flight jolt of adrenaline that pushes you through trying times and forces you to continually evolve and never get too comfortable, while also being there to punch you in the lower back and slow things down when your ego gets ahead of itself.
Present a capable confidence to your clients and coworkers. Look to past triumphs for inspiration and direction. But if you’re ever on a project and the voice in your head is saying, with complete certainty, “Nothing to worry about here. We have this on lock – there’s no need to fear!”
Then…be afraid. Be very afraid.
(Adam Epstein will be hosting our free Cinematographers in Focus event at The Varick Room on 10/29. Get details and RSVP here.)