Bryan Reisberg is a filmmaker living in New York City. His first feature film, Big Significant Things, premiered at SXSW in 2014 and was distributed by Oscilloscope Labs. Recently he produced Joel Potrykus’ The Alchemist Cookbook.
When my wife Alex and I got a dog back in 2016, a fellow director made a point to tell me how much of a mistake I was making by “inviting such an unnecessary and time-consuming distraction into my life” — especially at such an important time when one should be focusing on their career (e.g. finishing a draft of a screenplay or a treatment for a project). Intrusiveness aside, the potential validity of such a thought gave me pause — that maybe a dog was a bit imprudent and ill-conceived. I should be focusing my time on making something that would further my career, right?
At the time, I was working on a draft of a screenplay that I hoped would become my second feature film. Several years prior, I was fortunate enough to have made my first feature, premiere it at major festival, work with a dream distributor, and then get trashed upon release by both critics and audiences for making what Variety called an “84-minute shoulder shrug.” My mom thought that review was funnier than my entire movie. Thanks, Ma. OK, back to the dog.
Would the pooch halt the progress I had made up until that point?
Later that night, when I finally stopped ruminating on my own “career” and dislodged my head from my own ass, I realized that such a narrow definition of filmmaking – that I had to relentlessly direct my life toward some specific career-goal, despite myself, and shun anything that got in the way – was both personally and creatively suffocating.
So I stopped thinking altogether about all those unnecessary and toxic self-assessment questions that inhibit fear and stifle the creative process: Am I on the right path? Is this the right project? Will this get me into the right festival?
You may be asking yourself, “This was all still because of the dog, right? We’re still talking about just getting a dog?”
As soon as we got Maxine, I was constantly taking pictures and filming her. For no other reason than the fact that I had this new thing in my life that inspired me. Though we were social-media novices, Alex and I decided to set up an Instagram account for her: @madmax_fluffyroad. We both love movies, so we decided that every post’s caption would be a movie quote that somehow related to the image or video. It was a fun thing to do.
Was it a distraction? Not really. I was just making something different. If everyone just stayed in their creative lane, we wouldn’t have this album, these hats, this typeface (one of four designed by Satyajit Ray), this video game (by Takeshi Kitano), or any one of the more than 170 theatrical productions that Ingmar Bergman directed.
And if Ingmar Bergman can simultaneously be a filmmaker and theater director, why can’t I simultaneously be a filmmaker and “dog influencer”? Are those analogies too disparate? Maybe. Bergman was a prolific creator who experimented beyond the limitations of cinema, and even beyond the limitations of theater. He explored a multitude of creative outlets through which he could express himself. Theater wasn’t a distraction from his cinematic pursuits and vice versa. Whether it’s the cinema, the theater, hats or a mobile phone — they’re just different forms that are more alike than they are different.
What started off as an experiment in another form ended up challenging how I think about my own creative process, and how I approach “creating” in general. It was low-stakes, which was a novel idea for me. Funneling my process through an animal’s Instagram allowed me to be instinctive and authentic; to stop thinking, and do what I thought was funny, or cute. I made what I wanted without hesitation or worry if it would be well-received or accepted. “Bryan. Come on. You took pics of a cute dog. Is there something I’m missing?”
In between writing and working on small commercial shoots, I’d have my camera to capture a moment, or I’d have an idea for a funny video. And then I would film it and post it. I wasn’t overly meticulous about the craft, I didn’t ask anyone if they thought it was good enough or funny enough, I just kept at it. Basically how I imagine Joe Swanberg makes movies – that’s how I approached my dog’s Instagram. And whether or not you’re a fan of Swanberg’s work, his films are undoubtedly authentic.
As someone who’s still starting out as a filmmaker, I’m trying to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it. And if intermittently speaking through my dog doesn’t get me closer to finding my voice as an artist, then at least I’m having fun and making a few people smile.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Bergman had Liv, and right now I have Maxine (and I guess my wife).