Focus on MDFF: Mental as Everything

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Damon Smith

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“Why would you want to create and output anything in a different industry, in this case as a hobby filmmaker? Isn’t the life of a musician challenging enough?”

As a musician who also creates in mediums other than music, I often wonder what it would be like if I had spent all my time and energy on one craft, other than many?

Would I be a better piano player? A better guitarist, or singer? A more descriptive writer? And, is there even such a thing as a ‘better’ when it comes to one’s art and its output? I

’m not sure, although I do believe, that if you truly have music coursing through your veins, so to speak, or that urge to write or paint after seeing a sweet, horrific, inspirational scene – perhaps a sunset, a car crash or any old family photo, that one is creatively free to communicate that emotion through whatever conduit is available at the time, or whatever seems to fit said inspiration.

Since I was a kid, I have been imagining making movies. I would play the family piano, terribly, I should add, just big handfuls of notes, messy and discordant. As the sounds echoed through the house, I would take those chords, still ringing out in my mind, and use them as a sonic backdrop, a soundtrack, as it were, and use it to help me act out an often dramatic scene. Years later, when I first owned a car, I would put a song on the car stereo, start the car and shift into gear, all while focusing on these movements as if it was a camera shot. Then I’d close my eyes slowly to recreate a ‘fade to black’ and get on with my day. Mature, much?

As a young adult, while my friends were mostly at University or working through apprenticeships, I was working job to job while stumbling through a personalised curriculum, my own university, all while existing in an often frivolous world of creativity. Upon reflection, this dreaming and inventive playtime, as much as it may seem a waste of time, was hugely important for me, particularly in these formative years. This process, a perhaps vacuous and meaningless one, was utterly necessary for me and without it, perhaps I wouldn’t be who I am today. And who am I today? Sometimes I find it hard to answer that question.

Now, what the heck does this have to do with filmmaking? Well ,as a musician, I have navigated through the highs and lows, valleys deep and wide filled with pure joy, frustration and all the emotions in between. From a sound or a melody that creeps into the unconscious mind at 3 in the morning that’s swiftly transferred to an instrument, fleshed out into a song form, partnered with lyrics and put aside while enough songs, manufactured in the same way, are compiled for professional recording.

Then comes the recruiting of musicians to play their parts while now, as the sound engineer, I move back and forth between roles as a producer and a councillor, trying to use the right amount of tact and sensitivity in a way to try and have ultimate control over what these musicians are bringing to the songs.

“That sounded great, a real keeper, let’s do another take”… Then the record is mixed and mastered and in many cases, left for years until its release. A plan of world domination is hatched. Record artwork, gratuitous scribblings about the process and the people involved are made and then it’s time for publicity.

A proud creator is usually rather positive about the possible outcomes at this stage and authors a story to go with the press release. The pain, the sorrow and the good times had while creating the record, along with exaggerated tales of embellishment are put to paper in a bid to create a story behind the record to get maximum recognition and distribution. Then, we scrunch it all up into an easy to navigate email, send it to industry folk, attach the music, photos plus more embellishment, and then send! 

The process is exhausting but alas, soon I’ll be sipping expensive wine while discussing large quantities of cash that will be exchanged for my music to be distributed internationally, universally… throughout time and space, the music is so good that time travel and tiny rocket ships are invented solely to achieve planetary and timeless domination. World leaders, past and present will broadcast this music to their country-people because they know, this music will save and enrich lives all while boosting the economy via all the record sales. 

Ahem, back down on Earth, after directing the time machine to the present, months have passed with very little movement on the music. No email replies, no record deals, no exposure or large quantities of cash and a bout of depression that fits snuggly, an invisible cloak of doom.

Ok, we’ve strayed somewhat here… filmmaking.

Damon Smith.

So as much as I have always made tiny films and spent time profiling people with a camera and interesting editing, I never thought I would release anything bigger than a standard, YouTube styled clip… until 2021 that is, and after my exhaustive attempt to explain a creative process a few paragraphs ago and the fact that I go through that process with the frequency of breathing, one may ask, “why would you want to create and output anything in a different industry, in this case as a hobby filmmaker? Isn’t the life of a musician challenging enough?

Well, the answer to the latter is both in the beginning of this article and rolled up in a recent epiphany I had. You see, I think that we are a hobbyist until we release work and as much as something may seem frivolous, and this could have something to do with the social construction of themes in society that revolve around, birth, schooling, higher education, job, family, midlife crisis, old age and death, I think that the supposedly, frivolous nature of something you have created, whether it is a life changing, out of the box invention that will achieve the afore-mentioned planetary domination, or a 1 minute song you’ve made up on the spot about a cat, is up for discussion and my in opinion, ‘nothing’ can be as significant as ‘something’.

So what is important enough to pry me away from my music career? (which currently, is a job that keeps me busy and makes money, even in COVID times) The answer. Mental Health and my lived experiences with a Bipolar Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To understand the intrinsic nature of what I’m talking about here, you’ll need to watch Mental as Everything. However, part of the answer back there is that COVID and the destruction of my industry hurt me.

2020 brought me canceled shows, more specifically, the cancelation of a tour that sees me on stage talking about mental illness through the conduit of music and comedy and while planning the rescheduled, 2020 tour for 2021, I was offered the opportunity to film our show as a ‘Covid safe’ plan. 

At this point, I had an idea. What if, instead of filming the show as is, I use this opportunity to make an actual film!

The ideas for what this film would be like changed rapidly, although the premise was simple: It had to be absurd and serious at the same time, ambitious but not contrived. 

The modest funding came through and I started to plan. I hired the superb cameraman, Andrew Watson, called my hugely talented filmmaker friend, Ursula Woods, who had already started filming me in discussions about living with mental illness and called in a another friend, Declan Tiger, a fantastic animator.

I bought a green screen, a camera gimbal, a stabiliser thing and then learnt how to make titles. I found locations to film, called upon more friends including actor, musician and film maker, Nick Carrafa and then my stage partner, Adam Coad, from the live version of Mental As Everything, wrote his designated sections and filmed his parts.

Then, we filmed the music, edited the animation, created the films ridiculous intro that features the two of us, played by strangers that look nothing like us. After all that I edited for hours and hours and hours and hours and then after scrapping parts, redoing parts, jumping in the air with excitement, throwing my weight around my studio because my computers suck, I finally had a finished product. 

So now, as a filmmaker who also creates in mediums other than film, I wonder, what would it be like if I spend all my time and energy on one craft, other than many?

Mental as Everything is screening as part of the 6th Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. The festival runs from the 1st -31st July 2021 Online and the 21st – 31st July 2021 In-Cinema at Cinema Nova as part of Documentary Month. Details here.

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