Fall and Rise

River writer-director Emily Skye on what happened when her dream film project suddenly fell apart in pre-production five years ago.

When I think about filmmaking, I always go back to that moment. You know, the moment that nearly breaks you. So many people look at social media and think how successful other people are (or seem to be), but forget the key ingredient: the journey. People forget about the journey.

So what did my journey look like over the last six years, you may ask? Well, it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was a rollercoaster of insanity. So many times over the past 14 years, I’ve asked myself, how am I still making films? Here is the answer to that question. The good, the ugly and the uglier. But don’t worry, this story has a purpose.

My directorial feature debut, River, is now out, and it’s something I’ve been waiting for nearly 13 years. Nothing prepares you for these feelings, the simultaneous mixture of excitement and kind of wanting to be sick. This is, after all, filmmaking; we pour our souls out, hoping the stories we tell will resonate with the audience.

Looking back, what haunts me most is the day I nearly walked away from being a filmmaker altogether. The month that my world crashed and burned around me. At the time, I had no inkling how I would survive this devastation.

It was a warm, summery New Hampshire day, and I was hard at work with my D.P., my two A.D.s, my gaffer and a bunch of P.A.s. We were in pre-production, after all. I’d spent the previous few weeks with my line producer and D.P., walking every location, finalizing every piece of wardrobe with my costume designer. Hell, even our last roles had been cast. This was to be it, my big moment.

Emily Skye in 2015, during pre-production on what was to be her first feature.

I’d spent the past five years slaving over a project that I was told I could never direct, which people said I didn’t have enough experience for, as a narrative director coming from music videos. But now I was reflecting back all of those comments, because I was about to direct my dream project. The one I’d lost sleep and relationships over.

I took a deep breath and lived for this moment. I was feeling the high after my team and I had the most amazing experience at Florida Supercon in Miami, being on a panel with Eliza Taylor and Hayley Atwell from The 100 and Agent Carter, respectively. Fans of the series of books I’d optioned lined up to meet their favorite characters from this world I was so passionate about.

Emily Skye at the 2015 Florida Supercon.

Everything about this time in my life seemed perfect, until I checked the bank account. There was a hold on the account, and all the money was frozen because my investor had made some poor decisions that ultimately put a stop to the production. My heart stopped. I could feel the panic start to envelop me. I looked at my team, sitting around me doing their daily activities, and had the biggest lump in my throat.

My line producer noticed my face first and took me to one side. I tried my best to hold myself together, but the tears began spilling down my cheeks. He knew there was nothing we could do and all I could do was pull the plug. He didn’t abandon me, in fact he helped pay for things I couldn’t take care of on my own, like gear that had already shipped and had to be paid for in full.

Shame. I felt so much shame. I was a failure. The crew understood, even some of the cast. These things happen, I was told, over and over. None of that mattered to me. I was in the pit of despair. It wasn’t myself I was so upset for, it was my team, the author and the cast that I’d let down.

Not even a month after the destruction of my project, my mom called me to inform me a good friend had passed away from an overdose. He was sober for a year and the day he relapsed was the day he died. I’d just spoken to him an hour prior. My world was crumbling and I couldn’t seem to stop it. I had to pull myself together for my two-year-old son. He needed me. But when I tell you that I wanted to give up on myself, I really did.

The devastation of my project collapsing and my good friend dying caused me to inspect everything in my life. Shortly after, I got divorced. This was the rock bottom for me. I felt crazy – how was this my reality?

Even during my lowest days, I still wanted to find myself, so I spent the next eight months connecting to who I wanted to be. This self-examination led me to write my next project, The Erectors, a short series dramedy based on the beginning stages of my journey as a director, which really resonated with a lot of female filmmakers. After that, I was able to start the healing process and grew a lot from owning my vulnerability.

Our paths are winding and traverse uneven terrain. Some days, we have to take everything we have to get back up and face ourselves. What I learned is that I was my harshest critic, I was the one who judged myself most. Not one person told me I was a failure during those times, but I built an aura of false information. I wasn’t a failure for trying, it just wasn’t my time yet. One can’t force things to happen when it’s not right. This was the lesson I needed to learn. Yes, it was painful, yes, I wanted to give up – hell, I actually started a new career path in the tech industry where I partnered with NASA, but even then, it was connected to storytelling. My heart and soul never left, they just needed time to heal.

The question that people have asked me most in the lead-up to the release of River is where the inspiration for the film was drawn from. I always respond by saying my life events; I pulled from my journey, especially being in an abusive relationship. Each character in River is a facet of myself, as the different mental states I experienced shaped the film and its narrative.

Emily Skye (right) filming Mary Cameron Rogers and Rob Marshall in River.

Fear never really goes away. I carried so much pain and uncertainty with me going into River that a part of me naturally kept checking the bank account to make sure everything was OK, that things weren’t going to fall apart like they did last time. I meditated a lot to help get myself through production. Wanting this so bad, of course, meant that doubt crept in multiple times. I am, after all, human.

If I could draw lessons from what happened to me, and how I got to this place as a filmmaker now, I would say this: We all want to see the end results, but remember not to rush the process. Be kind to yourself; you are uniquely you. Comparing yourself to others will only hinder your progression. There is no need to compete, the world is plentiful. Make your own opportunities. We build our own realities, so if you’re thriving or are in the middle of a lesson, know that this only makes you stronger to receive your dreams.

All images courtesy Emily Skye. Featured image by @Learnfilmmaking.

Emily Skye is an award-winning director and cinematographer. Her debut feature, River, which she filmed September 2020, during the pandemic, is out now on VOD through Gravitas Ventures. She won over 18 awards for her short film of River, filmed May 2020, which is available to stream on DUST and Hollyshorts Bitpix, to name a few. Emily has a highly anticipated whiskey docuseries adventure called Binders Stash coming out fall 2021. Currently she is prepping her next film, Cherry Ln.