We had the good fortune of connecting with Brendan Merrill and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Brendan, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I’d like to say that I’ve taken lots of big risks as a filmmaker, even though I haven’t really. Risk-taking sounds romantic, and at the same time a little desperate. It’s easy to love somebody willing to put everything on the line, win or lose. It’s also easier to watch them if they fail.
But part of taking HUGE risks as a filmmaker… for me… was knowing which ones to take, and which ones not to. Granted, if you didn’t know me and looked at some of the decisions I’ve made while working in and around entertainment for the last decade… I bet you might say I allowed myself to take certain large risks. One of those: making a movie in China without government permission, sure. That was a calculated risk. And of course, deciding to try and write and fund your own film, yes. That’s absolutely a risk. You risk not finding steady work after spreading yourself so thin on a personal project. An endeavor that has no real guarantee of success or fiscal returns, immediate or long-term. You risk not creating connections and meaningful relationships, work-related or personal. I was extremely fortunate to be where I was when I started the journey to make my own film. To be surrounded by the right amount of people who believed in me enough to give me a shot, or at least pay a few bucks for me to go away for a hot second. It was that spark that set all of this in motion… all of this being the rest of my years in LA. In the time since we shot MADE IN CHINA, I’ve made 4 other features for different people as a Producer and Editor. I’ve been on some wonderful sets and gotten to know some excellent people. However, through the slog of my own post-production on MADE IN CHINA I was able to realize why I’d taken a good, big risk in trying to make my own film. I’ll get to that at the end, let’s get back to the smaller risks.
The biggest lessons I’ve been taught over the long period during which I tried to complete this film have been uniformly clear: lower your risk during times when it can be lowered. You don’t need to try and squeeze in everything on a moment’s notice with zero preparation. It’s not required to make great art to be improvising blocking during a scene. The truth is that when one small thing gets screwed up, it’s usually not going to make or break the sprawling, intensely collaborative process of making a film. But when 2 or 3, maybe 5 things go wrong all at the same time… that’s when those little risks start to stack up. All of those cursory, forgettable tasks you’d meant to do but just forgot became risks you didn’t need to take: like forgetting to withdraw local currency in cash for tips and on-the-spot payments. Like not having one person’s transportation fully sorted out well in advance so they possibly miss their connection, or not having purchased a prop by a certain day so it ships to your location a day late. All of these small, fixable errors are pretty miniscule in comparison to the organization of something so interconnected and intense. Crafting a story, writing a score, running a set, mixing and color-correction, each of these important parts of a film involve lots of heads focusing on the same problem. More eyes to be open and more mouths to suggest potential solutions. It is the less glamorous parts of production where the true risks are being taken. Like making sure to have extra paper for your on-site printer, or walkies for your whole production team, or simply responding to every… single… email… that you get and thusly going to bed with a clear inbox/conscience. Completing these smaller tasks in which you don’t have to be a brilliant, inspired artist to do and do well is where risk mitigation is the most important. These little tasks just take patience, time and hard work. And yet, if you let not just one, but a few of these things slide, that one tiny risk becomes something much more significant during the making of a film. A day gets lost. You have to schedule re-shoots. You get to fix it in post.
There are so many incredible artists who still don’t have their voices heard, who haven’t been given their “shot” simply because of circumstance. And nepotism. And discrimination. Talented people who aren’t appreciated far outnumber those who are celebrated by the public, across all mediums of art. Cruel chance separates a lot of underrepresented people in this field from achieving their dreams: being series regulars, having a new show coming out, dropping an album and watching it blow up on Spotify. In addition, there are a LOT of talented people out there who also just take the wrong risks and get unlucky. Simply pursuing a career in the creative arts is as dodgy as ever. It’s a fundamental risk for people who are coming out of high school and don’t have the ability to attend any type of film school at a university. Should I take this job in my hometown that’s safe, or should I try out my luck in a field that has no promise of success… in another city? Fame is not gonna just catch you if you try to make music or film or tv or theater for 20 years and “gave it your best shot”. There’s a TON of luck and risk-taking within the pursuit, but just taking that leap into the game can be a massive risk for people to take right from the jump.
One thing I realized that I needed to do during my own process… while making my first feature as a Director and helming a picture… was that NOT taking the smaller risks allowed me to take bigger ones. And guess what: I learned the hard way most of the time. Having all of my ducks in a row regarding the extras for the day or having a piece of equipment delivered on time, this security allowed us to make some seriously questionable decisions when the camera started to roll. NOT taking the smaller risks made sure that everybody was in the right city let alone shooting location at the right time, had transportation to and from the set, were fed, clothed, housed and at their best so they could do their work. Making sure they’re in a good head space and entertained, positive and excited.
Producing MADE IN CHINA by myself meant that I was calling in a million favors from people that I’d met over the previous year while living and working in Yiwu. It meant making sure I kept my promises to them, since they’d been kind enough to do so for me. Lots of tiny things done in the months and months preceding production, completed during scouting trips. Little bits of work done in exchange for a favor, a location, a vehicle, you name it. This film would not have been possible without a thousand instances of somebody sticking their neck out for myself and my crew. What worked for us is all of those little risks being eliminated. They were taken care of by our friends who went above-and-beyond to help us. Many were zapped by our team during pre-production, during meetings discussing and logging every piece of fabric, prop, sound note or potential camera issue that could come up during production. Of course, a lot of that prep was woefully incomplete and imperfect in many ways. We found out on set just how well we’d actually prepared. The planning, the boring part, there’s where you actually take your biggest risks. Sure, we shot an entire feature-film under the Chinese Government’s nose. But it was mitigating those small risks and being proactive in the minutia that helped the most. Things like securing Visas, synchronized scheduling, feeding people and the basic task of being on time that allowed us to be ready. To be flexible. To think and move and shoot on our feet. By not taking small risks, we allowed ourselves to take much larger ones. And those risks are the ones worth taking. Risks you know aren’t risky, because you’ve prepared for it. If things go south, at least you’ll be ready for the next one.
And so here is where we get back to the biggest risk. The risk of even starting at all. For many who could be the next great visionary, director, writer, performer, inventor, scientist, keeper of the flame… they don’t get to start. The risk is too great to pick up everything and give it a shot. They may have to stay at home and look after friends or family, or look after themselves. If you think this is you, then don’t look away. The biggest risk is never starting or giving it a shot at all. If you have a very serious commitment and you’re just getting out of HS or college, then don’t sweat it. Go home and take care of it. Give it years, the human relationships we have are priceless, especially our families. I respect that. Then, guess what? Bam, time flies and you’re still pretty young compared to me and everybody else. Things change. Even if it’s a few years later, you can now re-evaluate. Would the world come crashing down if I moved to New York or LA or Atlanta or Paris or Hong Kong? “I know this person who can get x job for me if I went there…” but you don’t want to take a chance because the money you’re making at your current job is good? I get it.
I can’t judge and there is no wrong answer as it’s your path and your life. But one of the best parts of life is, even when it may not seem like it… that you have a choice. And if your heart is calling you to take a chance, to try something new and challenging on a lark somewhere else? I’d suggest you go for it. Taking a big risk initially can be a great thing. When you put yourself out there and work hard, sometimes you’ll catch yourself. Time will whizz by your head and suddenly it will have been years. You’ll blink and suddenly be unable to remember your old life, how you used to view the world. The world gets a whole lot bigger when you allow yourself to take risks. But take a big risk and believe in yourself. Take a big risk and work out the little risks along the way. If you work hard and can be focused, people will see your talent (in whatever you pursue) and the way will get easier, it may even seem to fit after a while.
Just being you is a risk, all the choices we make each day. All of the possibilities. But please hear me on this: If you’re prepared to take a huge risk and pursue your dream and it doesn’t work out? If you’ve given it everything and you’ve grown and learned and responded and persevered? You’ll have learned more life skills than you can imagine in the process, and go back to whatever you’d done before and do it ten times better. There will always be what you know now, you can probably always come back to it. You’re good at it! And you may even enjoy it more than most other work. I’d simply ask you to give yourself the permission, the option to take a chance and take a big gamble on yourself. Make the bet that the act of pushing yourself to go a little further is good for you, whether it’s joining a new industry or work path, or it could be about your personal navigation of this experience called life. It’s about seeing whatever that big risk is in your life, and gambling on yourself to make the most of the opportunity when it comes. That’s the risk you must take.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I began as a sketcher, drawer and painter. I loved to create visually which led me to taking up photography at about 15. That opened doors in my brain that could never be shut, eventually helping me decide to study film and communications in college. However, the practical knowledge and logistical skills on-set are best learned there, on-set or in the production office. It took years for me to get the true proficiency I wanted and needed to be a part of the film industry. To be anything! And then years more until I was able to be employed for those skills. Learn more, grow more. Repeat. I’ve certainly had my share of challenges along the way. I’m lucky! I’ve had the perfect set of crises at the right times, so to speak. Losing a job, losing a person, changing direction, loss of hope, trying again, it all happened. Each one taught me something important about myself or how I see the world. How others see me and my art. Each one prepared me for another test that would inevitably come later. The growing, the learning and the experiences were the true gold in my journey. Having those times, being there. These are the things that last a lifetime. I’m so glad that art has been the vehicle that’s taken me where I’ve been, to meet the people I have met. If you want to know about my art it’s usually about adventure. About some sort of risk, something uncertain. MADE IN CHINA is exactly that. The other art in my life right now is being drawn and written, with a little bit of photography on the side. I’m very excited as I’m hoping to finish a book within the year as well as a script I’ve been developing which may be the next project, depending on how 2021 shapes up. Hopefully by Spring of next year I’ll have some really-good news to share with you, but until then it’s getting the word out about my film. If you watch it, you’re supporting artists who are here to take risks and tell truthful stories. You’re willing to see the world through another person’s eyes and for that, I thank you.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’d take them to the beaches on the first day: Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu. A whole-day beach extravaganza. Play some volleyball, surf if they surf (or try), maybe even go on a boat if you can. Dinner that night overlooking the coast, either fresh fried pescado at Malibu Seafood if it’s not mobbed or Nobu if our guests are rich.
Then we’d drive UP the coast so Solvang and do a little wine tour after buzzing through Santa Babs’ (Santa Barbara) and stay at an Air BnB in Solvang for the 2nd night. There’s a little restaurant there called Coast Range that I highly recommend. The food is spectacular, the drinks are sophisticated and strong. Careful of the lines, get a reservation in advance.
After the brief stop in sultry Solvang we’ll shoot directly up the coast for 7 hours, basically sacrificing the day but getting to stop in beautiful beach towns, finally landing for dinner in San Francisco. Hopefully it’ll be at least a little foggy 😉 but I’d have our friends stop check in at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and their restaurant Top of the Mark. After a show somewhere we’d then tuck in for the night.
The next day would consist of a stop in Healdsburg and tasting some wine at a few great vineyards, one of which an old friend helps run. After a long afternoon break it’s be time to drive the last 5 hours to the ultimate destination: The Pacific coast Redwoods.
I’m a big camper so I could get the tents up pretty quickly, and would go to sleep that night under the mists of a redwood grove. The next two days would be taking the incredible trails from forest to sea through the parks (try Jedediah Smith). People usually lose their minds and think they’ve gone to Endor from Star Wars. The eewoks are just behind the next enormous fern, I promise. After a couple of days looking at rutting Elk and eating incredible camping-tacos and delicious grilled steak with vegetables (plus scotch) it’ll be time to head back down.
Driving down from Healdsburg takes an entire day, which is the MOST LA thing to do while visiting. So, to make things even MORE interesting we’d actually drive down the 5 (there’s not much to do there) and head directly to Joshua Tree National Park, camping at Sheep’s Pass Group Campground Site #3. You’ll be able to find a bunch of folks there who are kind and quick with whiskey and jokes. I promise you’ll have an excellent time hearing stories, looking at the stars and enjoying the incredible panoramas atop crazy rock formations that no other place can mimic. That may be when time begins to slip and the week is over, so you re-schedule your flights using the reception outside the park and extend your trip by three days. They go by quickly but the last night is spent on a couch catching up on Handmaid’s Tale and eating out at Father’s Office in culver city because you can’t remember any of the other nice places around, despite there being a million.
Oh and then you’re in traffic at 1:00am outside of LAX, that happens and your friends freak out. They run away from your car, desperate to get back to… wherever and high out of their minds on adrenaline. A nice trip.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d like to dedicate this to everyone who helped create MADE IN CHINA. This isn’t just the family of expats and Chinese people I’d met on my first trip to Yiwu. These incredible, generous people who leant me their cars, their homes, their offices and their help to make this movie. It’s not just for the amazing people who joined us from all over China to act and crew up this film. It’s not just all of the friends and co-workers who hired me in between and knew they’d be supporting the completion of this project by helping me continue to work and pay the bills. It’s not just for the friends I had growing up, for my family. It’s for this entire group of people who believed in us. This one’s for you.
Other: MADE IN CHINA on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/made-in-china/id1574008164 MADE IN CHINA on AppleTV: https://tv.apple.com/us/movie/made-in-china/umc.cmc.7eexb6thghcpvdzb9uj66ix9b MADE IN CHINA on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B099WQQRKT