Trusting the Unknown Path

For Victoria Negri, gearing up for her second feature has been an exercise in accepting uncertainty. And being on pandemic lockdown doesn't help any.

I’m sitting in my sister’s apartment just a few days into the coronavirus social distancing in New York City and I’m filled with uncertainty and a bubbling anxiety about the future.

We are trained to judge our lives by structured, controlled milestones. We go to school and look ahead to the 17-year-old seniors who just got their driver’s licenses and are figuring out what colleges they’re going to. We move into our college dorms and go to scheduled classes and think ahead to graduating. And suddenly, we’re thrust into the world with goals and nervous energy about what it means to finally be an adult and to have a career. A few years are inevitably spent floundering, figuring out who we are and how to live without the auspices of a larger system. It’s OK at first. It’s an adventure, even. And then, if we’re lucky, we settle into something – an understanding of who we are within the context of a calling.

Filmmaking and the artist’s life beckon some. We come up with concepts and visuals and scripts we want to write, and we set off to make them tangible. And as we grow older, we accumulate a wider variety of experiences and realize why very few people are able to make films their whole life. It’s incredibly difficult. Sustainability is a challenge. We see those that we went to film school or art school suddenly pursuing careers with the structure we were so accustomed to and took comfort in – nine-to-five jobs unrelated to the industry, a set place to be every day, a desk to can call their own, coworkers to bond with and go out to happy hour with. It’s a beautiful discovery, for those that find it. Everyone needs to do what makes them feel secure and stay true to their own personal values, as they evolve.

Victoria Negri on set.

Coronavirus has thrust us out of our routines and schedules and jobs, and we’re forced to reckon with what’s important and what will help us survive, mentally and physically. And I think about my relationships and my love of creating art, specifically film, and how intertwined these things are. I’m in an apartment where multiple people are working from home, all of us receiving updates from friends and texts from the government about restaurants and bars closing, and the NYC lockdown. I think about the structures of our lives, the schedules, the things that are certain that give me the energy I put into my craft.

I’m 33 years old, and in development on my second feature film, ULTRA, which explores the intense world of ultramarathon running. A few years ago, my screenplay’s first draft was bare bones and resembled more a long short film, and now that it’s complete (though scripts are never truly done …) and making the rounds at agencies and being considered by Hollywood talent I never dreamed would even read it, I’m anxiously teetering on the cusp of the film actually happening and patiently waiting many more months for the chance to create it. Both waiting and the opportunity to film sooner rather than later put my trust to the test in different ways. In waiting, I have to continually question and reassess why I’m pursuing this film and why it matters to me. In knowing when the shoot will happen, my trust in my abilities and artistry is put into action, thrust forward for many people to witness.

I’m excited and impatient and terrified and every descriptor you can think of. I’m also anticipating the long-term effects of COVID-19 and how it’s affecting my own artistic endeavors and my relationship to my work. And I realize I’m lucky. Many have it much worse.

A shot from Victoria Negri’s first film, Gold Star.

The social distancing and time spent staring at my computer screen have compelled me to look inward. I’ve been thinking a lot about the qualities that help me persevere through challenging times and through the current period of waiting before ULTRA is ready to go. I read the news about life as we know it being put on hold – student loan payments frozen, college graduations cancelled, all restaurants and stores in New York City closed to a varying degree. And with the pause button pushed on society’s forward progress, it’s caused me and hopefully everyone around us to reassess what’s important in our lives and what keeps us going.

More than anything, I trust that what I’m doing is what I should be doing – which is defining myself as an artist and a filmmaker and continually making projects, whether or not they’re consumed by the public. I sometimes wonder, where does that trust come from? Why do I trust this? Why do I trust that it’s OK to spend an afternoon writing a short film script that might never be made, or free-writing for hours? Why do I trust that while I’m cooped up in an apartment and trying to leave as little as possible, that the exact thing I should be doing is daydreaming and brainstorming new film ideas? Or writing music to keep my brain stimulated? Or starting a new feature script whose budget may be so high that it’s impossible to finance? Or, more concretely, to think of progress I can make on how best to shoot my feature when it’s greenlit?

This trust in my identity as a filmmaker – and the knowledge that making art is what fulfills me – is deeply ingrained. I was raised by two parents who were artists. I grew up going to the movie theater every weekend. We went to museums and looked at art and talked about it. I remember holding a paintbrush in my hand at a young age and painting pine trees in my backyard and talking with my father about the colors of the sunset. I remember him taking a break from playing the piano with me to teach me how to shade a sphere and show me what direction light comes from. I remember my mom and I silently watching The Quiet Man, one of her favorite films, and suddenly feeling like I could see a hidden side of her.

Three-year-old Victoria Negri (right), with her sister Tiffany, aged four, in painting mode.

My relationship to the people around me is directly connected to art, and my relationships are incredibly valuable to me. My memories are tied to film and music, and I channel a lot of subconscious existential crises and more difficult concrete experiences through making art. My best memories and closest conversations with my father were spent by his side on a piano bench. Creating art with people and talking about it and sharing it – or keeping it sacred to myself, if that’s what makes sense – is a process I trust that I need in my life. It is the thing that makes me feel the most personally fulfilled in my day-to-day existence.

And this is where my trust comes from. The chance to make a film is worth the risk of it all falling apart because I can see the end product as a fulfilling form of self-expression. Accepting the emotionally intimidating process is a gamble well worth taking. I’m not jumping into a secure career path because I trust that the unknown timeline of each project is the very thing that makes any project worthwhile – the uncertainty tests the endurance of an idea, and to see it through evolves the end result and further reinforces my conviction as a creative person.

Like everyone else, I have massive doubts. I have had many rejections with ULTRA already, from grants and organizations, from actors reading it and passing, with actors’ schedules not lining up. And now with COVID-19, who knows what will happen? When these doubts hover over my thoughts like a dark cloud, I allow myself to indulge in frustrated self-pity, just for a moment, before digging deep. I watch a film I love and think, If only I could make something like that. I remind myself that all good things come in time, that all good memories are linked to art, that my most exciting thoughts and discoveries are born when I’m creating. I embrace the symbols on film screens that have made me feel comforted and less alone in how I see the world. I trust in my gratitude for the process and in the joy of discovering new details in a script. I trust in how the current state of things with coronavirus might give birth to a greater level of trust and confidence in my filmmaking, despite the obvious paradoxes that currently hold me and all of us back.

Trust is a beautiful and terrifying paradox, because in embracing it, you acknowledge the overwhelming doubts that prevent you from moving forward. When you trust, it is not an ignorant or stubborn action, it is bravely choosing one personal path in life, when knowing many different versions of yourself are possible.

Featured image of Victoria Negri by David Moriya.

Victoria Negri is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and actor. Her directorial debut, Gold Star, which she also wrote and stars in, world premiered at the Buffalo International Film Festival in October 2016, where it won the Audience Award, was released theatrically in fall 2017, and is currently available through Amazon Prime. Negri is currently in development on her second feature as writer-director, Ultra.